Chroma Chameleon

Expansion, Palais des congrs de Montral, Montreal, Quebec
Ttreault, Parent, Languedoc et Associs/Saa, Barbarese Topouzanov Architects/difica

Montreal is on its feet again. Not since Expo ’67 or the 1976 Olympics has the city seen such a series of large-scale projects, including the exuberant, one million square-foot, $193 million expansion of the Palais des congrs de Montral, and the decidedly more sober 600,000 square-foot Caisse de Dpt et du Placement du Qubec complex built at a cost of approximately $305 million. These projects are set in a continuous urban strip bound loosely by avenue Viger and rue St-Antoine known as the Quartier international, stretching from Victor Prus’ original Palais des congrs at rue St-Urbain westward to Place Bonaventure. The Quartier is certainly one of the largest redevelopment projects in Canada and repairs the urban fabric basically, by covering the Ville-Marie Expressway and uniting Old Montreal with the city’s business core to the northwest. Urban designers Daoust Lestage Inc. and Provencher Roy et associs have designed a series of substantial urban plazas and thoroughfares that reinstate vehicular and pedestrian circulation links that were disrupted by the gash of the sunken, open-air expressway. The Quartier international is not only a carefully accomplished piece of urban design but also a contribution to the re-framing of Montreal as a leading international metropolis.

The Palais des congrs de Montral is a turnkey project designed by Ttreault, Parent, Languedoc and Associates with Saa, Barbarese and Topouzanov Architects, difica and Hal Ingberg Architect (as independent architectural consultant) built by Gespro, BFC and Divco. The bid for the project was won in a controversial competition in 1999. The outcome of this very complicated process is a substantial piece of architecture–a glass box impregnated with colour and a playful urbanity.

The site is huge. The 300m 112m site is bounded by rue St-Urbain to the east and rue de Bleury to the west. avenue Viger comprises its northern edge while rue St-Antoine marks the threshold between the modern town and Old Montreal. The competition brief called on the architects to double the surface area of the original facilities, to build a new public Hall giving onto rue de Bleury, to create underground links to the adjacent Cit Internationale de Montral, and to build an elevated loading dock on rue St-Antoine, and to integrate commercial storefronts at street level eventually.

The winning design distinguished itself by connecting the ‘dots’ in the most direct way possible. This is architecture sized XL. At a base level, the Palais is a place of passage with a 300-metre public promenade that runs parallel to avenue Viger. This length is exaggerated with the tapering of the walls to produce a forced perspective by reducing the promenade’s 15-metre width at rue de Bleury to 6 metres at rue Saint-Urbain/Place des Armes’ metro entrance. In general, the linearity of the public spaces is extended through the use of exposed tracks of flush fitted fluorescents and reflective surfaces. The ground level promenade features a floor finished in an alternating pattern of polished and sandblasted black granite. Both sides of this public corridor are lined with luminous glass of varying opacities. The second/third floors are finished with high gloss terrazzo floors, perforated and mill-finished aluminium ceilings and mirrored stainless steel walls that reflect and distort their surroundings and inhabitants.

The next big move, the Hall at the western extremity of the Palais, runs the entire width of rue de Bleury on both the ground floor public corridor and the second/third floor ‘pre-function’ space. The promenade together with Hall Bleury effectively create an L-shaped public zone for the Palais complex. The rectangular footprint of the Palais is completed at the ground level by the creation of the three ‘donuts’ of commercial space that enclose and screen a series of expansive loading docks, truck ramps, bus stations, and other service elements. In between each “donut” is a north-south pedestrian passageway that connects the Palais to rue Saint-Antoine. This programmatic feature, not included in the initial design brief, ensures the Palais is an animated public space–a crossroads of sorts between Old Montreal and the modern city to the north.

The second level is comprised of one of the largest rooms in Canada, a columnless multi-functional space that gives onto the exhibition halls of the original building. All these areas have direct access to the loading docks below. Along the northern edge of the second floor, a pre-function hallway stretching along the existing Palais is a brutalist concrete form that can be read clearly, in contrast to the lighter and more airy quality of the new addition. Following the original design intention, Prus’ building has not been fully absorbed by the new Palais. Generally, it remains intact. In one instance, an existing mezzanine has been stripped down to its skeletal structure to emerge as a sculptural ruin that enables scale and drama for Hall Viger.

Given the clarity of primary spatial moves, things heat up architecturally with the four faces of the Palais. As a kind of chameleon, the Palais changes its stripes depending on the context. In the case of the rue St-Antoine, its uncompromisingly flush faade is comprised primarily of horizontal strips of black granite (with four different finishes) and translucent glass that zigs and zags to create direct horizontal alignments with the existing Palais, two historical faades, and a 10-storey Art Deco building that are embedded along its 300-metre length. The chameleon’s grey stripes turn as we round the rue de Bleury corner. Almost the entire southwest faade is comprised of five by twelve foot vertical panes of alternating coloured glass to create a fabulous multi-coloured skin of pink, chartreuse, blue and other colours. This taut skin (the horizontal and vertical caps of the mullions have been edited out) is punctuated by two translucent glass canopies appearing as illuminated light boxes at night. When the sun hits this faade, it glows with residues of the various colours appearing on the sidewalk and the building opposite. On the inside a fairly conventional and ubiquitous space is transformed into a memorable and intense experience as jet-lagged convention delegates mill around in the pre-function space, viewing themselves and Montreal through a changing kaleidoscope of saturated colour. A gray world is thus viewed through a psychedelic lens. Both the avenue Viger and rue Saint-Urbain faades use coloured glass more sparingly but with dramatic flare.

From the other side of the coloured glass, outside the Palais in the sombre evening light, the building lights up like a lantern. As Hal Ingberg, a co-designer of the project explains, “these varying readings of colour and luminosity in different light conditions transform and enrich the building and actually make you aware that architecture exists and that you are experiencing it.” Colour, as a kind of architectural ‘wake-up’ call, continues to be used with dramatic flare on both the avenue Viger and rue Saint-Urbain faades. A large expanse of chartreuse forms a focal point for the end of rue Jeanne-Mance; a Jolly Rancher-reminiscent green marks the complex’s northeast corner.

In fact colour animates the Palais’ straightforward design and rescues it from being just another conventional uninspired box. On the upper levels of the Palais, its terrazzo floors are deep blue; the walls are lined with yellow Douglas fir plywood and orange MDF, and bright expanses of polka-dot carpeting stretch out before the eye. More colour is added with Claude Cormier’s interior landscape, 52 concrete tree trunks painted lipstick-inspired pink. Add to this the Dan Flavinesque cadmium yellow fluorescent lights mounted to the soffit of the rue Viger underpass, and a surreal environment develops.

Ultimately the Palais’ chameleon character does two things at once: in changing its stripes from gray to inten
se colour it is both part of the fabric and an object that demands attention. It behaves well in its urban context but does not fail to create a memorable moment as we look through pink, blue and chartreuse lenses upon what was, in an instant before, an everyday humdrum world. The lasting impression is a Palais des congrs that is decidedly unconventional.

Client: Socit du Palais des congrs

Architect team: Mario Saa (design architect), Michel Languedoc (project architect), Vladimir Topouzanov, Jean-Luc Touikan, Fabien Nadeau, Jean-Luc Vadeboncoeur (architect in charge of construction documents), Dino Barbarese, Gilles Parent, Jean-Claude Dupuis, Truong Tuan Nguyen, Yvon Thoret, Steve Proulx, Vivian Irschick, Franois Massicotte, Yves Proulx, Nicole Olivier, Eric Stein, Cline Gaulin, Dominique Dumont, Denis Chouinard, Julie Blanger, Louise Nagy, Jose St-Pierre, Alain Thibodeau, Martin Gagnon, Martin Roy, Adriett Osorio, Louis Philippe Riopelle

Independent architectural consultant: Hal Ingberg Architect

Structural: Dessau-Soprin

Mechanical/electrical: Pageau Morel et associs / Genivar

Interiors: Les architectes Ttreault Dubuc Saa et associs

Contractor: Gespro / BFC / Divco

Landscape: Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes

Area: 125,436 m2

Budget: $240 million

Completion: December 2003

Photography: Marc Cramer

Michael Carroll is the co-founder of Atelier BUILD and adjunct professor at McGill University.