Bohemian Rhapsody

PROJECT Louis Bohème, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECT Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes
TEXT Odile Hénault
PHOTOS Marc Cramer, unless otherwise noted

The Louis Bohème, one of Montreal’s newest downtown projects, owes its strong urban presence first and foremost to an intelligent round of negotiations between Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux architectes and city planners. The outcome of these negotiations was such that the developer was able to propose a meaningful urban gesture that is responsive to the city–rather than just building another residential compound oblivious to its surroundings. 

According to zoning regulations, the project was indeed slated to be a sturdy 14-floor structure with minimal open space at ground level. The real challenge–and major breakthrough–was to figure out another way of occupying the site. It was proposed to divide the project into two towers–one 13 storeys and the other 28 storeys–while maintaining a floor-to-area ratio of 12.0. 

The lower tower was designed to occupy the part of the site closest to the newly completed Place des Spectacles on rue de Bleury, while the higher tower was built along boulevard de Maisonneuve. The former relates to fur industry manufacturing, which at one point was prevalent in this area of Montreal, while the latter corresponds to the string of office buildings located on either side of de Maisonneuve as one progresses towards the city’s business centre.

Because of the building’s L-shaped plan, residents were provided with a greater variety of views and orientations. Those living above the 15th floor of the de Maisonneuve tower were given a rare treat: in each elevator lobby, an opening focuses the view towards one of Old Montreal’s true jewels, the 1920s Royal Bank Building with its pyramidal roof. 

Freeing part of the site also provided the architects with an opportunity to create an open space on the south side of the complex, over the entrance leading to a six-level parking garage that contains 300 parking spaces. The outdoor garden, measuring 245 square metres, is accessible directly from the upper part of the main lobby where, aside from a few studio units, one finds a lounge/library space and an exercise area. The mere concept of a contemplative space, where tenants can read or just sit quietly, is one of the aspects of this project that reveals real estate developer Javier Planas’s Spanish origin.

Planas moved to Montreal almost 20 years ago and received public acclaim for remodelling the 1908 Canadian National Express Building (designed by Hutchison and Wood) along rue McGill. Erected by the Grand Trunk Railway Company at a time when Montreal was a major North American transportation hub, the building is now known as the Hôtel St-Paul, the first boutique hotel that launched in Old Montreal. 

Planas is the president of Iber Group, a Canadian company backed by Spanish investors while Iber Immobilier, the actual client for the project, is a real estate management fund created by Planas to tackle Louis Bohème, his first major residential project in Montreal. Construction of the project started in 2007 and ended in the summer of 2010.

By the time the building opened its doors, 98 percent of the units had been sold. Although the architectural team had much to do with this success, credit should also be given to mp1/innédesign, a firm responsible for the project’s branding and marketing strategy. They also contributed to the choice of details, colours and materials for some of the interiors.

The 293 apartments vary in size from 58 to 150 square metres. Aimed at a middle-income buyer, the design is fairly standard, as all units are a single storey, accessible from a double-loaded corridor. The corner units, as one might expect, are the most interesting. That being said, one welcomes the fresh simplicity of the interior design, a relief in a market where ostentation is often mistaken for elegance. 

Considerable attention was paid to the detailing of the elevations. The east façade, facing Place des Arts, is carefully crafted with a wall comprised of aluminum, zinc and steel panels assembled in a mosaic-like pattern. Sophisticated window elements with no apparent mullions were specifically designed for this project. Metallic modules are all the same height, slightly over half a metre, but they vary in length and hue–black, red, and dark and light grey. A distinct rhythm, reminiscent in certain ways of musical notation, was thus created on this façade, which acts as a backdrop for the Jazz Festival and other musical events that occur every summer in the streets surrounding the building.

In contrast to this façade is the stark north elevation parallel to boulevard de Maisonneuve, where the black granite aggregate added to the pre-fabricated concrete panels creates a striking and almost abstract effect, highly unusual for this type of building. Each of the building’s two street façades expresses a distinct aspect of what Montreal is all about as a creative city. Only metres away from the major performance and visual arts cluster of Montreal, the Louis Bohème is also the portal to the city’s business centre towards the west. The higher tower thus acts as a beacon that celebrates both the festive character of the city and its more serious professional aspect. 

At the junction of the building’s two wings is direct access to the Place des Arts metro station, itself connected through a series of passageways to Old Montreal, the Palais des congrès and Chinatown. Finally, the Louis Bohème features a 1,500-square-metre commercial zone situated at ground level on either side of the residential area. The sparsely furnished lobby features a clever LED lighting system emanating a purple glow that creates an eerie feeling.

Despite the inevitable changes that take place in a project of such complexity, Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux architectes were able to stay on course throughout the design process, a feat largely attributed to a strong architectural and urban parti. They managed to incorporate whatever concessions that had to be made without compromising the essential conceptual underpinnings of their scheme.

Centrally located, the Louis Bohème fills one of Montreal’s numerous downtown lots left vacant ever since the Drapeau era and its overambitious dreams. Although a number of towers have been built in the last half-century, few compare with I.M. Pei’s Place Ville-Marie, Mies van der Rohe’s Westmount Square, and Peter Dickinson’s CIBC building. As an urban object, the Louis Bohème achieves a level of excellence that is respectful of the best Montreal has to offer in terms of modern heritage. This is no small accomplishment, and proof that urban gestures that engage in a dialogue with the city can be financially sustainable. CA

Odile Hénault is a Quebec-based architectural writer and is currently editing a forthcoming book on the work of Dan Hanganu to be published by TUNS Press.

Client Iber Immobilier
Architect Team Jean-Pierre LeTourneux, Anik Shooner, Gaétan Roy, Alain Boudrias, Audrey Archambault, Catherine Bélanger, Jean-François Jodoin, Jean-François Mathieu, MacGregor Wilson, Marc-Antoine Chartier-Primeau, Paolo Zasso, Pierre-Alexandre Rhéaume, Vincent Lauzon, Andréa MacElwee, Benoît Dupuis, Claudio Nunez
Structural/Civil Génivar
Mechanical/Electrical Dupras Ledoux Ingénieurs
Interiors Inné Design
Elevators Jean-Marc Gagnon et associés
Contractor EBC Inc.
Area 45,000 m
Budget $60 M
Completion August 2010