Art History 101

PROJECT Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art
ARCHITECT Provencher Roy + Associés Architectes
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS Tom Arban unless otherwise noted

Looking out from the fourth-floor galleria of the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion, the uneven slate of a century-old rooftop testifies to years of abuse by the harsh extremes of Montreal’s weather. The mottled texture of the tiles and their claret-coloured brick gable foreground a panorama of streets lined with historic mansions and modern apartment blocks that lead the eye north, towards the city’s iconic namesake, Mount Royal. Here in the heart of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile district, the tides of change are ever present in the urban morphology. 

Founded in 1860, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has called the intersection of Sherbrooke Street and Avenue du Musée home since 1912, when the Art Gallery (as it was known at the time) moved from Phillips Square to a new pavilion by architects Edward and William S. Maxwell. Today, the architectural lineage of the complex–whose authors include design luminaries Fred Lebensold, Moshe Safdie and Frank Gehry–reflects a long tradition of institution-building. Through its mandate to provide the public with firsthand access to art, the museum has, over the last 150 years, been a key player in a Canada-wide conversation about both the possibilities and responsibilities of building in a rich historic environment.

The newest addition to the MMFA’s ever-evolving campus, designed by Montreal-based Provencher Roy + Associés Architectes, is in two parts. It is made up of the exhibition galleries, housed in a four-storey chiselled white marble block, and the Bourgie Concert Hall, a restored 19th-century Romanesque Revival church. Each piece succeeds as a project in its own right; however, the overall composition that ties the unconventional pairing together is somewhat less developed. 

The landmark Erskine and American Church by Alexander C. Hutchison had long been on the museum’s radar, but it was not until after its deconsecration in 2004 that its acquisition could become a reality, in 2008. How to repurpose this 104-year-old structure was the next challenge. Adaptation to strict museum environmental control standards was determined to be costly and complicated, and the use of the nave remained an open question. A serendipitous meeting between Pierre Bourgie, Montreal businessman and philanthropist, and Nathalie Bondil, director of the MMFA, sparked the marriage between museum and music that gave birth to the new concert hall. 

From Sherbrooke Street, the church’s restored south façade remains largely unchanged. The exception, a slice of smooth white marble, cuts from the sidewalk through the rusticated stonework to frame the new hall’s street address. The contrast between the entry’s slick palette of metal, glass and polished marble along with the heavy texture of limestone introduces a language of insertion that revels in contrasts between rough and smooth, darkness and light. Once inside the new foyer, patrons are ushered upstairs to the pinnacle of their journey, the restored nave–now auditorium.

While the conversion of church to concert hall may seem a logical solution, the creation of a first-rate performance venue that respects the integrity of the historic building is no small feat. In this regard, the resolution of Bourgie Hall is a lesson in elegance and restraint. Many of the church’s original features were restored including the exterior masonry and stone detailing, and the interior dome ceiling, balcony and trim work. Several stained-glass windows, those defining elements of ecclesiastical architecture, were also preserved, among them 18 Tiffany windows that are reputed to be one of only two commissions by Tiffany Studios in Canada. Into this historic shell, the team inserted key modern design features to enhance the musical performance and the audience’s appreciation. Individual cushioned seats were added to the existing balcony pews, while 311 moveable chairs organized into three sections now fill the main floor, itself a new concrete slab. The modest stage, framed by undulating birch panelling and an inflected canopy, slots into the church’s north wall with knife-like precision to enhance the quality of sound in the room and reflect it back towards the audience. A performance in this space has all the intimacy of a pastor and his congregation, but with the flexibility of a larger auditorium. No part of the venue’s functionality is compromised, with amenities including dressing rooms, green room, tech booth and rehearsal space integrated backstage. 

From inside the church nave, the presence of the adjoining galleries is little felt. The lobby of Bourgie Hall is the only space in which circulation flows freely between the concert hall and the exhibition spaces, and this only happens during a performance event. Most of the time, visitors to the museum cannot glimpse into the church; their passage through the complex remains an entirely separate experience. 

Impenetrable from the street, the marble and glass block of exhibition spaces positions itself in reference to the other buildings that make up the museum complex. To tie into the existing architectural language, Provencher Roy contacted the original quarry in Vermont, from which the white marble for the 1912 and 1991 pavilions had been cut. While the Maxwells used marble blocks to build load-bearing masonry walls, Safdie installed the material as a sealed cladding, shuffling slabs to form a random pattern. For the Bourgie Pavilion, Provencher Roy recreated an experience of the quarry itself, slicing the marble into thin panels and reinstalling it in the same sequence as it was taken from the ground. The joints between the stacked 2’x 4’ tiles were left open, a gesture of honesty towards its use as cladding, and of efficiency for ease of drainage and maintenance. As a result, the building appears as a single block of marble, strategically carved out to let light in.

Visitors to the Bourgie Pavilion must enter the building through the museum’s main entrance across Sherbrooke Street. From there, the pavilion becomes a wing of the greater collection rather than an entity in its own right. Visitors descend two storeys below ground level, and cross through a corridor that tunnels beneath the street. The path is punctuated by an oversized pyramidal skylight that links the interior of the museum to a glimpse of the buildings’ exterior façades. Rather than locating the visitor within the complex, however, the effect is disorienting. To the right is the entrance to the Quebec and Canadian art collection, an unassuming corridor that has been stretched to accommodate oversized contemporary works. But, it is unclear exactly where the tunnel stops and the pavilion begins, and what their relationship is to the original foundations of the church. 

According to Jacques Desrochers, curator of the new pavilion, “collections of local art are especially rewarding, because they shed light on original and little-known aspects of the society in question.” So too should the architecture that houses them. The Quebec and Canadian art collection follows an inverted chronology, beginning in the tunnel gallery with works from the 1960s and ’70s, and continuing to the third floor above grade where works from the 1700s to the 1870s are displayed. The commitment of the pavilion to the evolution of the province’s and country’s cultural heritage is apparent in views of the city that are gradually revealed to the visitor as they ascend from one level to the next. In this respect, the art of the collection and the architecture of the pavilion c
omplement each other by encouraging visitors to locate their experience within the continuum of Montreal’s art history in the space of the city. The most generous access to natural light and views occur at the top floor of the pavilion. Here, isolated as it is, the museum’s Inuit art collection is set against the building’s closest connection to the landscape, the silhouette of the mountain against the open sky. 

Each floor plate is divided into two zones of activity–a space for the display of art and a circulation area. The exhibition spaces are generous, located to the north behind the stair and elevator cores, sheltered from natural light. Their walls are painted to complement the individual works of art, and the sequence of each room is designed according to a specific theme. Circulation is pushed to the west, overlooking the street, the other museum pavilions, and the sculpture garden below. Here, by contrast, the finishes are rough concrete against large expanses of glass. Museums are typically inward-focused hermetic environments, designed to control atmospheric conditions as well as the visitor’s gaze. Provencher Roy has achieved an exception to this rule: light floods in, and the view outdoors becomes as much a part of the pavilion as the art itself. It is unfortunate that these spaces, so central to the concept of the pavilion, are at times too confined. The stairs are another missed opportunity in the choreography of the visitor’s experience. Choosing the stairs feels too much like taking the elevator; there is little change and no sense of arrival at each floor.

Space is at a premium in an urban environment like downtown Montreal, dense with existing buildings and history. Rare is the tabula rasa, or opportunity to build outside of a pre-defined context. The Bourgie Pavilion and Bourgie Hall actively engage in this conversation between old and new. Like stereotypical urban dwellers, forced to live side by side in tight quarters, they tolerate each other’s differences, but are extremely cautious about how much they interact. They each do what they do, and they do it well, but leave their audience questioning the potential for collaboration or open dialogue. Regardless of this conflicted relationship, the project as a whole–both the art pavilion and concert hall–grounds and celebrates the community through its heritage, by breathing new life into old things and ensuring their relevance and continued appreciation for generations to come. CA

Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based architect and writer.

Client The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Architect Team Claude Provencher, Matthieu Geoffrion, Eugenio Carelli, Jean-Luc Rémy, Denis Gamache
Structural Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltée
Mechanical/Electrical Enerpro and Le Groupe Conseil Berman Inc.
Masonry Restoration DFS Architecture + Design
Technical and Stage Design GO multimédia
Acoustics Legault & Davidson
Sculpture garden Ville de Montréal
Project Management Gesvel Inc.
Contractor Pomerleau Inc.
Area 5,483 m2
Budget $28.8 M
Completion 2011