Being At Home with Claude

Claude Cormier Residence, Montreal, Quebec

Jacques Bilodeau

“…aesthetic experience appears to be an experience of estrangement, which then requires recomposition and readjustment. However, the aim of this is not to reach a final recomposed state. Instead, aesthetic experience is directed towards keeping the disorientation alive.” 1

Disorientation, inversion, transformation, mutability. These are difficult words for your average architect, and are not aligned with the comforting Vitruvian mantra of firmness, commodity and delight. However, these very words are embraced by Montreal designer and artist, Jacques Bilodeau, given his most recent project–a residence and atelier for one of Canada’s most provocative landscape architects, Claude Cormier, whose Lipstick Forest at the Palais des Congrs (see CA, October, 2003) blurs the boundaries between design and art, nature and artifice, the real and the surreal.

The Cormier project at rue des Carrires in Montreal is an experiment that plays with the intersection of landscape, architecture, industrial design and conceptual art. The starting point is a one-storey, nondescript, industrial building north of a slew of railway tracks opposite two towering smokestacks of a non-functioning incinerator. This is the land of the post-industrialists, and Bilodeau and Cormier are feeling very much at home.

Although the bulk of the existing 40-foot by 60-foot building houses Cormier’s professional atelier, his residence is comprised of a 15-foot slice that runs along its entire south face. Because of the site’s industrial history–quarry and plastics factory–one of the first issues to be addressed was the removal of the contaminated soil beneath the existing slab. The excavation of the landfill to a depth of four feet established a new ground of inhabitation for the project. The resulting design section, evident in Bilodeau’s initial sketch, is a constructed landscape of ramps and folded floor plates that leads one down below grade level or up through the existing volumetric envelope.

Upon entering the front door at street level, one could be forgiven for mistaking the space for an art gallery or vacated showroom. The existing walls with their deep-set square windows are painted a luminous white. The architectural intervention appears as a series of horizontal and inclined surfaces finished in an earthy tone of walnut parquet. Any sign of domesticity is hidden from initial view–the kitchen, the bathroom and one of two sleeping areas are cleverly tucked in the lower part of the section and housed beneath a ramp that leads to a rubber-lined sleeping loft above.

Apart from the drywalled perimeter, Bilodeau’s architectural intervention sits in the space as an assemblage of luscious materials: folded sheets of metal, slivers of industrial grade walnut, expanses of mirror, sheets of rubber and slabs of white Vermont marble. Zones are favoured over rooms, and the notion of floors and walls gives way to the idea of surfaces that are inhabited in a variety of ways. One can lean, sit, lounge, dangle, slide, and step as the horizontal/inclined surfaces beneath glide on industrial grade wheels, or as a section of floor above the kitchen rises and falls with the help of a pneumatic jack. This is a de-signed environment where common signage of the “normal” is stripped away to reveal an interior that demands its inhabitants play the project’s ambiguous character. Strategies of inversion and camouflage are operative at every level of the design.

The domestic program of the project is subverted through the specification of industrial and commercial grade materials and fixtures. The apparent weight of the floor plates above the kitchen and bathroom areas is negated through the use of mirror on their undersides. Architecture that is normally static and immovable becomes activated. Like a landscape, the project is not static but in a constant state of becoming. Meuble (furniture) is displaced in favour of immeuble (building). It is no accident that as Cormier says, “He [Bilodeau] is resisting furniture,” because the architectural intervention in itself is the furniture–a chair, a chaise lounge, a sofa, a dining table all in one discontinuous strip.

Contrasted with an open set of floor plates, the backstage area of Cormier’s residence provides a private retreat from the theatre of the open loft. Bilodeau has carefully designed the space so the gradient of privacy increases as one moves from west to east. The sleeping area hovering at the extreme end of the space is insulated with sheets of black rubber. Below, the bunker-like bathroom is entered via a heavy pivoting door constructed of folded metal. This place of refuge is well-equipped, complete with a full-height marble shower surround and a striking red cruciform medicine cabinet above the toilet. Tucked at the back, a metal stair winder leads to the powder room containing an extensive walk-in closet, half-bath and dressing area. Unlike Mies, Bilodeau is the well-tempered minimalist, providing ample space for storage. This allows Cormier to leave the clutter behind him when he appears on stage in his home to slip and slide within the distilled architectural interior.

Michael Carroll is an adjunct professor at McGill University and is the cofounder of atelier BUILD, recipient of the 2004 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture.

1 Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992), pg. 51.

Client: Claude Cormier

Design Team: Jacques Bilodeau

Structural: Consultants Gniplus inc.

Mechanical: Air Technologies Plus

Electrical: Lacasse lectrique inc.

Metalwork + Hydraulic: Paul Duchaine

Stainless Steel: Francois Broud Designworks

Flooring: Bois francs Imprial Lte

Cabinets: ric Bouliane

Mirrors: Vitrerie D&D Ltd.

Contractor: Rno-Proteck 2000 enr.

Area: 1,500 ft2

Completion: April 2004

Photography: Martin A. Beaulieu unless noted