Dan Hanganu: An Appreciation

Dan Hanganu and Phyllis Lambert, while serving as jurors in the 1997 RAIC International Competition
Dan Hanganu and Phyllis Lambert, while serving as jurors in the 1997 RAIC International Competition

The architecture of Dan Hanganu has a strong and authentic presence. In contrast to the weak, mealy-mouthed or too-clever-by-half developer projects, or the business-as-usual institutional structures, his buildings enhance the City of Montreal. It is here that Hanganu has found his authentic voice.

Trained in his native Romania, Hanganu settled in Montreal in the early 1970s, and 20 years later he was everywhere, winning competitions and designing remarkable works that mark and enhance the city`s urban fabric. His early work transformed the low- to mid-income row house typology into lively and welcoming neighbourhood residences in the southwest of the city. One example is the Habitations Quesnel, whose modern porticos, walls articulated in planes and voids and surfaced with alternating   rows of grey concrete and rose-coloured bricks.

Relatively small buildings, such as the mid- 1990s Design Pavilion at the Université du Québec à Montréal and the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, assert their presence even as they meld into their surroundings. The spatial qualities of entry play against the street, and the interior spaces make bold statements.

His major Montreal buildings accomplish something all too rare: they heighten the quality of the surrounding buildings and spaces. The large 1992 Chaussegros-de-Lery complex skilfully integrates offices and residential units with commercial spaces at street level. That’s not to say it’s perfect: I find that it eats up too much public space at street level as well as
volumetrically. Nevertheless, the panoply of voids in the different facades creates a powerful presence. So too does the tough, almost gratuitously industrial structure forming the entry to the 1996 HEC building.

Spatial overhangs, inner spaces and crevices imply large porticos, inviting passersby into his building. At Chaussegros, his well-detailed articulation of the concrete block facing the greystone buildings of Old Montreal remind us of his respect for context and regionalism. In his words: “Architecture as a strong historical specific cultural phenomenon is embedded in a collective self-image.” The understanding of architecture as a cultural phenomenon is implicit in Hanganu’s work at all levels.

Hanganu's Point-à-Callière Museum
Hanganu’s Point-à-Callière Museum

The Museum at Point-à-Callière in Old Montreal—a prow at the waterfront rising as a mast-like tower—replaces the long-demolished 1879 Royal Insurance Company building in a thoroughly modern manner. But this building does a lot more: the small public spaces outside and the larger gathering spaces inside have a welcoming warmth of irregularity and complexity in series of horizontal planes. The theatre, to which they lead, is one of the most interesting spaces in Montreal—my favourite, in fact. The  seating planes seem to float magically in an extraordinary world of archaeological remains— a desert cave, an archaeological crypt—which lie below in lieu of the orchestra; the audience views the proceedings against a high concrete wall. Spatially, Hanganu has made the most of the excavated archaeological remains, which extend below the surface to Place Royale—projecting, in his words, “ ‘who we were’ into the demanding present, hoping for a better future.”

Hanganu, Centre d'Archives de Montreal
Centre d’Archives de Montreal

Within his sensibility of a “strong historical specific cultural phenomenon,” Hanganu’s 2000 transformation (with Provencher Roy) of the 1910 Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales into the Centre d’Archives de Montréal is enormously powerful and exciting. On the west wall, a screen of closely spaced horizontal metal bars signals Hanganu’s intervention in the courtyard void, adding and strengthening connections in the existing built fabric. The entrance to the Archives building is through the south face of the noble Beaux-Arts building facing Square Viger. Hanganu has created for us the haptic pleasure of moving from the exterior granite steps to the interior wood floors and the soft wood stair treads and rococo railings of the original building, and from there to the slate tiles of the multistory atrium created within the grey brick and limestone walls of the older buildings. Straight ahead, the aluminum checker- board steps and floor plates underfoot lead to the restored, grand beaux-arts reading room, evoking the memory of the beaux-arts entry and softly rounded wooden stairs. The insertion of a large industrial structure at the north end activates the shock of change. A vertical element with three crossing horizontal arms evokes a Franz Klein painting, not only in its assertive black lines but also the black mesh of vertical elevator shaft and channel walkways at each floor, always seen from different positions, creating differing densities and values of tone and edge. The metal mesh surface is an ever-changing surface as the visitor moves, in contradistinction to the existing building’s solid masonry. It’s a brilliant architectural trope as well as contribution to architectural language in building conservation.

Dan Hanganu is the only architect to receive the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas, awarded by the Province of Québec, in recognition of artistic excellence. His use of transparency and dematerialization also has another dimension, like the haptic sense that I have found underfoot, that of arousing an “emotional response.” His industrial language works powerfully and, yes, beautifully.