Acting Out: Gilles-Vigneault Performance Hall, St. Jérôme, Quebec
In the early 2000s, Atelier TAG won competitions to design the Châteauguay Library on Montreal’s south shore as well as the Théâtre du Vieux Terrebonne just north of the city. Both of the resulting buildings won Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. From that auspicious start, the studio has made a name for itself designing cultural institutions in Quebec. The latest in the series is the Gilles-Vigneault Performance Hall, a multipurpose arts venue in Saint-Jérôme, in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains resort area north of Montreal. The theatre skilfully continues the evolution of Atelier TAG’s work, bringing together material experimentation, the use of structure to define space, and a desire to encourage social interactions through connections between interior and exterior spaces.
The new venue allows performing arts producer Diffusion En Scène, who advanced the idea for the theatre 20 years ago, to finally own a space with the equipment to fulfill its mission as a major regional player. With funding secured from the city of Saint-Jérôme and Quebec’s Ministry of Culture, a competition was held in 2014 to design the building on a prominent site in the downtown area of Saint-Jérôme. The location is close to the cathedral, the local college and the former train station.
It also benefits from a section of the P’tit Train du Nord linear park—a 200-kilometre bike trail built over an old railway line—running along its edge. The winning entry, by Atelier TAG in joint venture with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte, garnered a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 2014 and received supplementary funding from the Canadian government and lead sponsor Desjardins in 2016. Construction was completed in late 2017, after a delay when the discovery of contaminated soil forced changes to the design, including the move of the mechanical equipment from a planned basement to the back of the building.
For architect Katsuhiro Yamazaki, who co-leads Atelier TAG with Manon Asselin, MRAIC, the Gilles-Vigneault Performance Hall presented a new opportunity to investigate how people activate a building. However, as he notes, this is a counterintuitive proposition in a theatre, since most activities occur in the evening and interior conditions such as daylight must be tightly controlled. This challenge guided the architects’ grand gesture: an expressive wood canopy that extends from the interior atrium over the corner entrance forecourt.
Nearly 1,000 square metres in size, the canopy protects a grand staircase that connects the vast Place des Festivités—a new urban plaza at the heart of Saint-Jérôme’s civic and institutional core—with a second-floor foyer. For the architects, elevating the theatre’s main foyer creates a better connection to the urban environment, and En Scène has already started programming events on the plaza and in the outdoor spaces around the foyer. The theatre’s asymmetrical plan allowed the architects to place a café-bar, along with support and administrative spaces, on the eastern side, creating animation along the linear park and gardens. The performance space itself is a traditional Italian auditorium layout that responds to the needs of most shows presented in Quebec.
For the designers, spatial decisions go hand-in-hand with material and structural choices. The structural wood canopy highlights the forest industry associated with the history of the area and its colonization — a competition request—while also marking the entrance with a strong visual presence. Its pleated underside makes visible the cross-laminated timber beams and panels, and hides mechanical systems, while connecting to the building’s primary exposed concrete and metal structure. This hybrid structural solution came from code and technical issues limiting the use of wood apart from the canopy. Simultaneously, it responded to the engineering challenge of having the structural stability of the building concentrated in the back, with no bracing possible in the open-plan foyer. The integration of inventive structural responses has already been recognized through awards from the Association des firmes de génie-conseil du Québec and the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction. For Yamazaki, one of the building’s successes is in its combination of an innovative, expressive wood structure with a more conventional system that is detailed such that it deserves to be visible instead of hidden.
On the east and north elevations, curtain walls open the building to the Place des Festivités and P’tit Train du Nord park. To the west and south, the design team chose to clad the blank back-of-house walls with a diamond-patterned expanded metal mesh, a version of which was initially developed by SANAA for their New Museum in New York City. The mesh acts as a shading device for the fly tower and stage house, limiting solar heat gain in the summer months. The material choice also nods to the metal roof of the nearby cathedral, whose appearance shifts with the movement of the sun and which has acquired a patina with weathering over the years. Inside, the same mesh is used as a wall covering and as a curtain-like screen alongside the main foyer, reinforcing the visual continuity between interior and exterior.
Similar to the Théâtre du Vieux-Terrebonne, the expressive use of cladding allows Gilles-Vigneault to be perceived differently as one approaches it. However, it does not fully hide the fact that visitors coming by car—the vast majority of the venue’s audience—face almost completely blank walls as their first impression of the building. While visitors can walk from the parking lot through the P’tit Train du Nord park alongside the building’s glazed façades, the main entrance is at the opposite corner. The architects placed a secondary entrance adjacent the park along with a café-bar that could potentially be used all day, but the administration currently keeps it closed outside of show times.
For this critic, the references to SANAA’s New Museum (in both the choice of material and formal resolution of the fly tower) or to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art (in the combination of a wooden canopy and grand exterior staircase) are a little too obvious. But at the same time, these decisions create a strong presence for the theatre, especially against the more traditional backdrop of Saint-Jérôme. En Scène’s director David Laferrière has noted how locals are taking pride in the new international-calibre theatre, which brings increased visibility to both the town and his company. Furthermore, he praises the aesthetic accessibility of the design: it’s forward-looking and inviting, values that are in harmony with the varied programs and diverse audiences that inhabit the space.
En Scène’s artistic mission is to be an agent of change—to develop audiences for quality arts productions that are substantial, but also have popular appeal. That combination is illustrated by the long-term allure of the theatre’s namesake, Gilles Vigneault, a long-time local resident who is one of Quebec’s most celebrated poet-musicians. The creative way in which En Scène announced the new theatre building—through a half-dozen online videos in which artists of various disciplines performed in the building at various stages of construction—exemplifies their approach to combining accessibility, discovery and education.
By fully integrating the new venue with the city-owned Place des Festivités, Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte have offered En Scène a perfect setting to explore and expand on their work. At the moment, the arts producer is perhaps still discovering everything the building has to offer. But there is no doubt that they will soon find ways to activate its spaces and use their potential—in ways that will surprise even the theatre’s designers.
Olivier Vallerand is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s The Design School and an architect with 1x1x1 Creative Lab.
Photos by James Brittain.