PROJECT Bibliothèque Raymond-Lévesque, Longueuil, Quebec
ARCHITECT Manon Asselin Architecte and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes in consortium
TEXT Odile Hénault
PHOTOS Marc Cramer, Julien Perron

When PBS television journalist Charlie Rose interviewed architect Rem Koolhaas last October, he quoted film director Mike Nichols as saying, “The same way I want an actor to surprise me, I want an architect to give me something I did not know I wanted.” Being delightfully surprised by architects is what has been occurring for a small segment of clients in Quebec over the past 20 years as a direct result of an innovative government-sponsored program that has allowed a number of successful design competitions to be realized.

One extraordinary and positive outcome of a recent design competition in Quebec was the Raymond-Lévesque Library in Longueuil, designed by Manon Asselin Architecte (MAA, also known atelier TAG) and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes in consortium. MAA is a small but intense Montreal-based architecture firm led by Manon Asselin along with her life and work partner Katsuhiro Yamazaki, both of them McGill graduates. In addition to a couple of master plans and a few small renovations, MAA’s portfolio consists of only three public buildings, each the result of a design competition.

Asselin and Yamazaki’s work was first noticed in 2001 after they won a two-stage open competition for a public library in Chateauguay, near Montreal. The jury, which included the enthusiastic and culturally aware mayor at the time, Sergio Pavone, had sifted through 57 entries–then three during the second stage–before choosing MAA’s submission. While quite a number of theatres, museums and similar cultural venues had been built as a result of government-sponsored competitions, few libraries–with the exception of the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec–had been the subjects of a competition within the existing program. The Chateauguay competition was highly unusual for two important reasons: the authorities insisted on holding a competition for their future library, and they chose a design team led by what was then an unknown young architect, Manon Asselin.

Her second project, a theatre in Old Terrebonne located north of Montreal, was also the result of an open competition. The winning entry was produced by the same team and partners Asselin had used for Chateauguay–her own firm along with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes. Again they surprised the community with a delightfully assertive building, set in a unique natural and historical setting.

A few years later, Asselin decided to tackle another library competition, this time in Longueuil–Quebec’s third-largest city located across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. Longueuil had never held a competition before and might never have done so if public funding had not been so closely tied to the competition process.

The site chosen for the Raymond-Lévesque Library is located in recently annexed St. Hubert, a municipality long known for its airport–one of the first to operate in Canadian history–and its aeronautics industry. The building was also meant to be the cultural component of the Parc de la Cité, a conservation area appreciated for its natural setting. Remembering her first visit to the site, Asselin commented, “You could actually feel the breeze and smell the forest.” This first impression remained a strong influence on her design submission.

The team’s starting point was a wind diagram that served to determine the library’s overall volume and the shape of the roof. Crucial to the design process was the fact that in this competition–the first integrated design competition to be launched within the Quebec government’s program–environmental issues and energy performance had to be addressed concurrent with the design process. As a result of the project’s specific technical requirements, a young engineering firm specializing in sustainable building, Martin Roy et Associés Inc., was brought in to work with the architectural consortium.

In the competition entry, plans and sections seemed to flow from the combination of program demands, symbolic elements and the surrounding natural elements. The winds shaped the roof, and a cloister-like courtyard–a reference to the abbeys that informed Asselin’s Master’s thesis at McGill–allowed natural light to flood the building. Even the North Star, experienced through two specially oriented skylights on the upper level, found its way into the building. Brises-soleil were introduced to filter the sun’s rays but also recall the surrounding forest. Finally, rainwater fed into two sculptural retention ponds were meant to act as cooling devices during summer months.

Little change was made to the original design once construction began. Seen from the roof, the slightly askew two-storey volume has a central opening, reminiscent of Asselin’s appreciation for cloisters. At ground level, the northwest façade is cut away to allow park users to reach the heart of the building–its courtyard–without having to go through the library. The main entrance, located close to this public access, is tucked beneath the second-floor slab and leads to the central desk, which acts as a horizontal and vertical pivot for the library’s functions. Beyond the desk, the southwestern wing is entirely devoted to children and toddlers who are accompanied by their parents to a fuchsia-coloured soundproof corner.

Teens, adults and genealogy fans are invited to ascend the stairs, next to the long wooden desk designed by MAA. On the second level, enclosed glass areas accommodating various functions break the rhythm of innumerable rows of bookshelves. Views across the courtyard through layers of glass, sloping roof sections and wood louvres provide a constantly changing visual experience. The reading room, hovering in mid-air above the entrance, is the final destination of a long architectural promenade ascending up through the building.

 In terms of performance, the design team sought to reduce the costs normally associated with heating and air-conditioning by 50 percent. To reach this goal, the building was equipped with both an active and passive geothermal system. Ventilation was carefully planned using a number of strategies including fresh-air intake whenever possible. Heat comes through openings in the concrete floors, which also act as effective thermal mass.

Along the building’s upper-level perimeter, louvre panels made of carbonized wood–a popular choice in Quebec for both its aesthetic and environmental criteria–are positioned at slightly different angles to follow the path of the sun. Rainwater from the roof is channelled towards two interconnected retention ponds on the site. One of the ponds is located inside the courtyard, while the other is located in the parking area, across a path leading to the nearby nature trails.

One could say Longueuil’s Raymond-Lévesque Library achieves a number of goals. The project has already received nearly a dozen awards for its design, sustainability and programmatic excellence. As was recently confirmed by a major award granted to the architects by library professionals, the building fulfills its mission as the city’s flagship library. The high performance of its reduced energy consumption and water conservation reaffirms the fact that sustainability and design excellence are not mutually exclusive. As Asselin notes, “Ideally, in a building, performance becomes poetry and poetry becomes performance.”

And finally, competitions are likely to create more outstanding buildings than any other selection process. Quebec has proven this repeatedly over the last two decades, largely due to its unique European-inspired competition program, a process that has led to the construction of more than 30 cultural facilit
ies across the province–many of them receiving multiple awards. One can only hope that other governmental bodies in Canada will come to understand the numerous benefits resulting from the architectural competition process. CA

Odile Hénault is a Quebec-based architectural writer.

Client Ville de Longueuil
Architect Team Manon Asselin Architecte: Manon Asselin, Katsuhiro Yamazaki, Thomas Balaban, Matt Balean, Laurie Damme-Gonneville. Jodoin Lamarre Pratte: Nicolas Ranger, Carlo Carbone, Gérard Lanthier, Guylaine Beaudoin, Serge Breton, Charles-André Gagnon, Maxime Gagnon.
Structural SNC-Lavalin
Mechanical/Electrical Martin Roy et Associés
Landscape Manon Asselin Architecte and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes
Interiors Manon Asselin Architecte and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes
Contractor Tridôme Construction Corporation
Budget $12.3 M
Completion October 2010