Award of Excellence: Reconstruction du Théâtre Espace Libre

Montreal, Quebec

LeMoyne Lapointe Magne, architectes et urbanistes

The Théâtre Espace Libre, located in a former fire station at the foot of the Jacques-Cartier bridge in the east end of Montreal and set between a residential neighbourhood and the high-rise Parthenais Detention Centre (now used as office space), had outgrown its space years ago. The new facility will house the Nouveau Thtre Exprimental and the Compagnie de Mime Omnibus, both permanent companies. The design was required to include the principal elements of the original fire station while also creating additional space.

Performance, rehearsal and administrative spaces are organized vertically within the shell of the former fire station. The main performance space–accessible through two separate entrance ways, front or rear, depending on a given production’s set-up–occupies the complete ground-floor footprint of the building. A basement level contains storage, technical spaces and public washrooms, while rehearsal and office spaces occupy the upper floors.

Exposed concrete structural and subdividing elements and stair towers provide thermal mass and acoustic control for the building. Metallic mesh, suspended like a curtain, delineates the building’s new height while screening the upper portion of the original facade. The mesh element announces the presence of this contemporary theatre group in the urban landscape. The simplicity of the building’s rectangular volume efficiently organizes the theatre and its construction while the building opens to its surroundings with a textured glass facade on the southern orientation.

Savings will be realized in heating, cooling and operation through the implementation of ventilation and mechanical systems that respond to climate needs only when a space is in use. Natural ventilation is available, as all windows are openable, and the south stair is designed as a naturally-ventilated temperate zone to act as a buffer between the exterior and the theatre space.

Caruso: I like the way that this project makes architecture from what already exists around its situation: an ambitious client who already had roots on the site, an existing building that has significance despite its small size, and a site with a strong and particular character. The organization of the theatre is straightforward and impressive considering the density of program that needs to be accommodated within a tight volume. The curtain-like additions, necessary to enclose the enlarged volume of the new theatre, are carefully judged in relation to the existing facades, preserving the ruin-like spirit of the existing building but also making a convincing new whole which is celebratory, but not overblown. Perfect for a small public building.

Kapusta: Montreal’s laudable tradition of small urban theatres makes itself felt in this understated renovation of a fire station. The restraint of the metallic mesh curtain gives a satisfying expression of old and new in equal balance.

Saia: The architects really pulled this one off. In spite of the tight budget they succeed in preserving the principal elements of a fire station while adapting the building to the requirements of an experimental theatre. Their strategy is one of simplicity. By providing the alternative between front and rear access they achieve a large flexible room at the ground floor. The stairs grouped together on the south faade and the zig-zag curtain wall through which they are visible stage the sort of dynamic architectural performance that is suitable for an experimental theatre. The loggia on the top floor leaves the original roof line intact and allows the actual intervention to express itself in all of its modernity without disrupting the integrity of the volume nor being out of tune with the built environment. In short, the building knows how to take its place with assurance and with clarity.

Client: Espace Libre

Architect team: Rnald Caron, Benoît Chaput, Alain Desforges, Christian Desmarais, Frédéric Dub, Michel Lapointe (project architect), Michèle Malette, Donald Marquis, Patrice McInnes, Stéphane Rasselet, Richard Szcawinkski

Structural/Mechanical/Electrical: Gemec

Model photographs: Michel Brunelle

Budget: $2,890,000

Completion: May 2002