Big City Building

PROJECT Unity 2, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Atelier Big City

TEXT Rhys Phillips

PHOTOS Alain Laforest

Anyone familiar with Montreal knows the Autoroute Ville-Marie, stretching along the shallow valley between the city’s Old Town and its modern commercial core, as it sliced apart the city’s urban centre in the 1970s. Over the next two decades, mean parking lots ate away at the surviving fabric of rapidly deteriorating commercial and residential buildings, destroying a once vibrant community. Efforts to mediate the expressway’s negative impact–notably spanning the roadway ditch with raised parks and Victor Prus’ Brutalist Palais des Congrs–did little to improve this grim barrier. However, much has changed in the last five years with the completion of the award-winning Quartier International. The Palais has been transformed, Rene Daoust’s striking “horizontal skyscraper” for CDP Capital covers over two long blocks of the sunken Ville-Marie, and Place Victoria has enjoyed a major restoration. Additionally, Place Jean-Paul Riopelle was created, an urban forest was planted, and custom street fixtures by Michel Dallaire were installed–all gestures that contribute to an impressive healing layer of urban design.

One neighbouring district that has benefited is Paper Hill, located on the slope directly north of the CDP building where several residential developments in adapted industrial structures are underway or completed. The area takes its name from its role as Montreal’s centre for a vibrant paper, printing and graphic industry at the beginning of the 20th century. Its most outstanding building is the historically designated Unity Building constructed in 1912 from the designs of architect David Jerome Spence.

At 14 storeys, Unity has the classic parti of base, shaft and cornice, the last a delightfully flared termination detail that provides the design with a unique contribution to the city’s skyline. The shaft is composed of strong vertical brick piers with generous windows, giving rise to the term “daylight factory” because of the abundant natural light provided to workers. Its adaptive reuse into residential lofts was the first step in a two-phase project by Les Dveloppements d’Arcy McGee Lte. Unity 2, an L-shaped condominium building with 89 units immediately to the south of the original building on the corner of rue Viger and rue Saint-Alexandre, is the second phase. It delivers a convincing example of not only blending Modern with heritage but also the possibility of strong architectural design in the notoriously conservative condominium market.

The work of Atelier Big City, Unity 2 is also more than about providing a rich visual experience from the street: it both addresses the role of how a residential structure should work on a vital urban street and how unit plans can be manipulated to improve the living experience within the city. This combination of achievements delivered the firm its third Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 2006. Most, however, would not associate Atelier Big City with condominium design. The three-principal firm that takes very seriously the idea of collective design is perhaps best known for two previous GG Awards in the 1990s for interpretive centres as well as for strong entries in Quebec’s relatively frequent competitions for cultural facilities (currently, they are working on a new entrance pavilion for the city’s Place des Arts). But commercial and quasi-public residential work has become not only a mainstay since their return from a Prix de Rome sojourn in 2000, it also represents a return to an interest first whetted by one of Atelier Big City’s early successes.

Their 1989 Sept-Plex was a condominium project on rue Clark in Montreal’s trendy Plateau area. Because of the narrowness of the site’s street front, its seven units are paired back-to-back on each floor. Large end terraces overlook the street and a back lane while a second slender balcony traverses the full length of what is a narrow entry courtyard or ruelle that runs perpendicular to the street. Not incidentally, research unveiled a similar site plan for the original 19th-century building. Glazing is maximized along its semi-public “casual laneway” to ensure more natural lighting and ventilation.

“Rue Clark,” reports partner Randy Cohen in a lengthy interview that also included Howard Davies, “gave us the first concrete opportunity to think about Montreal’s residential typologies and how to create these in contemporary versions.” The Prix de Rome, he continues, allowed the principals time to think further about living in the city and how typologies define the urban experience. “A key theme in our design work is developing connectivity between what we are creating and the surrounding city, and this means recognizing the importance of public and semi-public space.” They refer to this as “folding the city back onto itself.” Frequently, continues Davies, condominium developments remain somewhat separated from the city, with private domains serving principally their owners. “For us, exploiting the potential of any urban project to perform at a public level is always a key design generator. Cities, at their best, are always an active, intricate pattern of public and private spaces that we as citizens are capable of using and enjoying.”

On their return from Rome, Montreal’s condo market was booming and Atelier Big City secured several mid-density residential projects. This included, in addition to Unity 2, three adaptive reuses of two heritage buildings and a contemporary industrial building, as well as Les jardins du Y des femmes, a new residential building for women at risk. The last is shortlisted for the Ordre des Architectes du Qubec’s 2007 architecture awards. All the projects speak in one way or another to the city’s found typologies. These include the stacked triplex, preference for street entrances or shared courtyard addresses, units closely tied to sometimes rambling balconies, and walkways that integrate with the “free for all” of courtyards and laneways. “In Montreal,” says Davies, “laneways tend to be active public spaces, more casual and unpredictable than the formal street frontages. It is the social and serendipitous aspect of laneways, both with respect to human behaviour and architectural form that is key.” This means that units tend to stick out on the back to engage shared public space as social partnerships.

Unity 2 offered Atelier Big City the tabula rasa of a new building, albeit one with a given structural grid from an existing two-level garage and a major Montreal historic landmark that had to be respected. In addition, its significant scale and location on busy but not overly wide urban streets offered significant challenges. “It is a very urban site,” explains Davies, “so when you stand in a Unity unit and look out across the street, the people working in the building opposite can seem close enough to pass you a cup of coffee.” Its slightly skewed L-shape form (unit plans are parallelograms) hugs the sidewalks of the two streets creating a semi-public courtyard between the original building and Unity 2. Along rue Saint-Alexandre, its east wing is 14 storeys, ensuring that a broad but simple cornice is aligned with its historical counterpart. The south-facing wing along rue Viger steps down to 12 levels in order to provide more light to the courtyard. At street level, passersby can appreciate Unity 2’s quiet nod to the tripartite (base, shaft, cornice) faade of the adjacent Unity Building. The new faade of Unity 2 demarcates a clear yet subtle distinction between the commercial activities at the ground floor and second level with a consistent massing for the intervening floors, capped off with a strong cornice line towards the top.

But it is the plan and the desire to interpret Montreal’s residential typologies that is the real starting point. Most condo developments, Davies states, are conventional in their overall conception, with interior d
esigners left to experiment within largely generic building organizations. In Unity 2, “a pragmatic radicalism” is introduced. This means that over 80 percent of its living units have two floors organized around five unit typologies. These include ground-oriented townhouses on the courtyard side, stacked and flipped “flow-through” lofts with two floors, inverted upside-down penthouses and single-storey studios, also overlooking the courtyard. The traditional double-hung corridor is restricted to every second level, and all but the studios face both the street and the calmer interior courtyard. “Two sides to every storey,” quip the architects.

Not only does each unit have a dynamic urban side and a more quiet interior face, the double-height flow-through units ensure good daylighting and cross-ventilation. Two levels also provide better personal space and privacy, a factor important for the developers who hope to attract families to the project. As each unit has a double-height volume on the south faade, a “glazed slot” is created with the potential of acting as a modest winter garden as well as providing an opportunity for each unit to take on its own expressive “green” character.

The architects see their plan as a hybrid because in addition to the standard corridor, the second level of each unit has a common exterior egress corridor. These laneways in the sky skirt the perimeter of the deep terraces off the master bedrooms on the courtyard side and lead to a large sculptural exterior fire stair. “The everyday private usage of these spaces,” states Davies, “is an understood social rite defined by simple territorial norms.” But, adds Cohen, they constitute “a risky approach that requires serious trust by the residents.” The presence of this exit stair on the courtyard acts as a visual focus while also evoking an association with the functional utility often tucked into the inner “service” side of urban blocks and laneways.

The courtyard, designed by NIP paysage, plays a pivotal role in the firm’s effort to integrate the city. Semi-public–it will be open during the day for others to use–it is entered through a porte cochere between the original and the new building and is enlivened by the townhouse entrances. A caf in the Unity Building spills into the space, a continuous wood surface is capable of hosting outdoor cultural events, and several small businesses will front onto the courtyard. “The social potential of the courtyard,” states Cohen, “is fixed within its organization and construction,” and this, combined with shared internal access between residents and second-level commercial offices, ensures that “the building is alive, humming with a variety of activities.”

This manipulated social enclave has been wrapped in a subtle but complex envelope of two quite different types. The street-facing curtain wall respects but by no means replicates Unity’s tripartite composition, while on the courtyard elevations it shifts to a taut light aluminum screen, what Cohen calls a “poor man’s curtain wall.” This difference between back and front is more functional than intentional. The city demanded masonry on the street faades while the many cantilevers on the inside necessitated a lighter screen. That being said, however, two discrete essays emerged.

Three “rules” dictated the composition of the street faade. First, the units are primarily glazed save for a brick panel that signals each unit’s fireplace; second, one side of the resulting tripartite unit faade is a double-height window that allows natural light to penetrate deep into the building’s volume; and third, to create a weave pattern on the faades, units above and below are “flipped.” This last element, continues Cohen, was done to avoid lining up the glazed parts of the interior spaces to create “gouges in the skin.” Wider double windows indicate where the unit’s second level reaches the exterior wall. “This creates a kind of ‘geography,’ an honest curtain wall that is also a metaphor for a literal giant urban curtain,” he explains. Key is the use of a steel shelf angle to permit the brick panels to “slip” over the glass to create the fabric weave of the curtain.

The courtyard faade is in fact a traditional stud wall with an attached aluminum panel system overlaid in part by glass screens. “Here,” maintains Davies, “the multiple and often poorly integrated sub-trades of the Canadian construction industry were brought together in an attempt to tightly orchestrate balcony railings, aluminum panel faades on traditional rain-screen walls, and standard aluminum windows into a taut appearance, somewhat like a curtain wall, but with better performance for residential uses.”

Atelier Big City did not win all the battles. They note that the building is more muted in colour and more refined in places than they would have liked. The corridors, for example, are by designer Karol Lapointe, and her black slate floors, white oak doors with German hardware, and glass walls punctuated by vertical fluorescent lighting are warm, yet slickly modern. At the same time, the building’s very raw concrete frame is left exposed in the units as are most of the concrete ceilings. Moreover, developer Federico Bizzotto has imported only top-end Modernist fixtures from Italy and Germany, including Gruppo Euromobil kitchens, walnut and white oak cabinetry from Copat, and ArtCeram sinks.

Davies sums up well what Atelier Big City believes they have achieved with an amusing metaphor: “If Unity 2 was a person at a party, you would find him through the kitchen out on the back balcony, not dancing around with a lampshade on his head. And if you took the time to strike up a conversation, I’m sure he would be informative and entertaining.”

Rhys Phillips is Director, Policy and Legislation for Employment Equity at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He has been writing on architecture and urban design for 19 years.

Client Les Dveloppements D’Arcy Mcgee Lte

Architect Team Randy Cohen, Anne Cormier, Howard Davies, Pierre Gendron, Patrick Morand, Thierry Beaudoin, Patrick-Hugh Tiernam, Lauren Abrahams, Elizabeth Bouchard, Oliver Schanz

Structural Dahl, Marzin Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical Blondin Fortin Inc.

Envelope Consultant Jacques Benmussa, architecte

Code Le Groupe CSB

Specifications Paul Cartier, architecte

Acoustics Produits Acoustiques PN Inc.

Contractor Les Dveloppements D’Arcy Mcgee Lte

Area 11,000 m2

Budget n/a

Completion Fall 2005