Building the Big City, One Block at a Time: The U Building, Montreal, Quebec
PROJECT U, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECT Atelier Big City
TEXT David Theodore
PHOTOS Alain Laforest
The U building is photogenic. For the façade, the architects at Atelier Big City divided the 14-storey apartment building into one-storey-high horizontal strips of mullion-free glazing. They used a simple commercial curtain wall system, peppered with vertical operable windows and trimmed with opaque, coloured glass spandrels. The strips are angled in an aleatory pattern of canted, seesawing bays, which have multiple rationales and varied effects. For instance, the bays give identity to the individual units when viewed from the outside, and, at the same time, offer unusual views out over the city from the inside.
The U is the second commercial project Big City has designed for intrepid developers Federico Bizzotto and Sebastiano Di Maria (formerly part of Les Développements D’Arcy McGee Ltée) on a small block of land in downtown Montreal. The area is known as Paper Hill, recalling the bustling printing industry that flourished there a century ago. The revitalization of nearby Victoria Square has given us some of Montreal’s most loved 21st-century buildings—the Palais de Congrès and the Centre CDP Capital (both 2003)—as well as a plethora of for-profit residential buildings. The U is part of a new trend in Montreal real-estate development, in that it offers luxury rentals rather than for-sale condominiums.
Although the U is a private commission, Big City is better known as an advocate for civic building. The firm’s motto—Make Architecture a Public Policy—is manifest in its public projects: the Centre d’interprétation du bourg de Pabos in the Gaspésie, Parc de l’aventure Basque in Trois-Pistoles, and the recent Centre culturel de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in Montreal. Because they win major prizes, these commissions are often vaunted as an endorsement of Quebec’s on-again, off-again competition system. But rather than think of Big City as a competition-based office like BIG or SANAA, it is perhaps better to see the firm as a deliberately small, idiosyncratic studio like that of Peter Zumthor, Sverre Fehn, or Glen Murcutt. It’s just that instead of building in Europe or the Australian Outback, they work in Quebec.
The designers reveled in the constraints of the site, a small infill lot that is blind on three sides. The showpiece of the block is the J-shaped Unity Building. Built by American architect David Jerome Spence in 1913, the tripartite skyscraper sports an iconic cornice. Now under heritage protection, it was converted into residential lofts in 2003. A few years later, Big City added another J-shaped building to the south—the 89-unit condo building dubbed Unity 2—that won a Governor General’s Medal in 2006 (see CA, August 2007).
Located at the northwest side of the block, the U proffers and safeguards unusual views of Montreal. On the opposite side of the street sits Saint Patrick Park, an urban garden that retains visible traces of St. Bridget’s Refuge, a 19th century asylum for destitute Irish immigrants. A set of wooden stairs rises up a ridge to the recently restored Saint Patrick’s Basilica, built in 1847. Apartments on the lower floors have a view of the church; higher floors enjoy a unique lookout over downtown. The penthouse suite on the 14th floor, set back from the façade by four-metre-wide terraces on all sides, boasts a magnificent, 360-degree panorama of the city.
It’s worth studying the site plan to see just how little room there was to maneuver. The “U” of the building’s name partly refers to the building’s footprint, which wraps around a small interior courtyard, closed at the lot line by a wing of the Unity Building. The first two floors contain the double-height entrance lobby, a restaurant, and the entrance to a five-storey underground parking garage. The courtyard gives light and air from the ground up. Glazed double-height “cube” units face one narrow end of the vertical courtyard, while a stucco-covered elevator tower caps the other end. Floors three to six provide hotel-like accommodations laid out along a single-loaded interior corridor. Access to the wider units on floors seven to thirteen, by contrast, is from an outdoor deck. The developers oversaw the high-end interior design: raw concrete floors and ceilings, white-painted gypsum walls, compact Italian modular kitchens, and large bathrooms with oversized fixtures.
The U inventively combines Montreal housing forms with European models. Its two distinguishing elements—an interior courtyard and deck access units—are rarely seen in Canadian residential developments. Deck access is more common in milder climates—in British postwar housing estates, for instance. Montreal’s celebrated Plateau triplex housing, however, does include access to units through communal stairs and balconies. And at the rear of paired triplexes, six units face each other around a small interior courtyard. The deck access at the U recalls this choreography of intimate, shared spaces. Big City’s adoption of this communalism for a high-rise is simply clever.
The U is less successful in making urban history visible. Originally, the in-and-out movement at the eastern end of the façade was meant to show the brick and stone traces of other buildings on the Unity Building’s firewall. However, after consultation with heritage authorities, Big City decided to cover the top part with aluminum that continues the curtain wall. They also added a veneer of local Stanstead granite up to the height of a former cornice, and a stylized “U” at ground level.
Some social history has also disappeared from view. The project was originally named “Le 456,” after a well-known gay bathhouse, Le 456 Sauna, which was still open when Bizotto bought the lot. In 2011, a Montreal newspaper reported that Bizotto planned to include a bathhouse in the U (called a “gym” in early plans), “because it has a cultural value, serves a niche market and is part of the heritage of that building.” In the final version, the gym has disappeared, and the lower two floors are given over to commercial rentals.
Finally, it must be said: in contrast to the standard condo towers popping up across Canadian cities, the U is extraordinarily well designed. There is nothing hazy or rote about it. When the design won a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 2010, one juror opined: “This
is a truly outstanding design—intelligent, careful, and spare—grammatically correct keeps coming to mind.” The building shows a deep understanding of Montreal residential mores, inventive stacking and intertwining of unit types, and a love of the exigencies of urban construction. The design is welcoming, allowing considerable input from the client, the builders, and the people who will live there.
David Theodore, MRAIC, is Assistant Professor at the McGill University School
CLIENT Federico Bizzotto and Sebastiano Di Maria | ARCHITECT TEAM Randy Cohen, Howard Davies, Triana Dima, Emily LaFrance, Sébastien St-Laurent, Vi Ngo | STRUCTURAL Silverio Marzin—Genius Consultants | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Dupras Ledoux | INTERIORS Federico Bizzotto | AREA 9,000 m2 | BUDGET $16 M | COMPLETION November 2015