Design with Nature: The Discovery and Visitor Center of Îles-de-Boucherville National Park, Boucherville, Québec

For years, developers kept a close eye on Charron Island, a site of exceptional beauty a half hour’s drive from downtown Montreal. Nature lovers also watched, as the coveted land stands at the head of a unique archipelago of relatively intact islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. In 1975, a year before the city hosted the Olympic Games, a 130-room hotel was opened under the Sheraton banner, creating a major precedent for future development.

Stone gabion walls and a cedar screen made from locally harvested wood introduce natural textures that complement the soft, flowing forms of the pavilions. Photo by Adrian Williams.

The mid-1970s was a time of widespread enthusiasm for road infrastructure, and the Quebec government failed to see the potential for irremediable damage to the islands’ unique ecosystem. Thirty years later, however, sensibilities had changed, and when a 2,500-unit condominium project was proposed for Charron Island, there was a public uproar. The Quebec government put a hold on the project, and in 2012, bought the island with the view of integrating it with the existing Îles-de-Boucherville National Park on four of the neighbouring islands. This major commitment also included funding for a new visitor centre, to be built and run by Sépaq (Société des établissements de plein air du Québec), the organization responsible for Quebec’s extensive park network.

At the time, Sépaq had already shown signs of wanting to give a fresh look to its parks as it upgraded its facilities. In 2013, it opened a visitor centre with a contemporary aesthetic in Mont-Tremblant National Park. The architects, Smith Vigeant, had welcomed the opportunity to steer their client away from stereotypes such as the oversized log cabins often associated with Canada’s and Quebec’s parklands.

Instead of a single pavilion, the program is divided between two pavilions, one of which is only open seasonally. The two structures frame
views from the parking area to the wharf, the focus of a number of visitors’ activities in the park. Photo by Adrian Williams.

For the Îles-de-Boucherville National Park, Smith Vigeant was again selected (through an RFP process) to design the facility. For the architects, however, this was an entirely different proposition from their earlier visitor centre. A far cry from Mont-Tremblant’s rugged, forested envi­ronment, the flat St. Lawrence River landscape is sprinkled with beautiful mature trees, including magnificent specimens of weeping willows. These trees became a leitmotif for the architects as they started their work, informing the sweeping forms and delicate exterior screens of the final project, which recently garnered an OAQ Award of Excellence.

The concept was developed through an integrated design process, which took place over the course of a three-day charette. The full-day workshops involved the client, professionals from a wide spectrum of design disciplines, and biologists from Sépaq. One of the first decisions that evolved from these meetings was to split the program into two separate components. The main pavilion—350 square metres in size—includes an arrival area, central reception desk, small cafeteria and family washrooms. A few staff offices, a boutique, a storage area and a mechanical room occupy the rest of the building. The second pavilion is a seasonal, 150-square-metre equipment rental facility, catering to the needs of campers, kayakers and cyclists.

The vertical patterning of the screen references the willow trees seen throughout the island landscape. Photo by Adrian Williams.

Both buildings are striking curvilinear objects—a presence that is simultaneously surprising and harmonious, blending in with the meadow-like landscape of the islands. From the parking area, the buildings act as a gateway to the water beyond and to the activities taking place around the wharf. This visual link—from the parking area to the St. Lawrence River—was a must for Sépaq, a requirement that was elegantly resolved with the presence of two structures on either side of a central public area.

In keeping with the tree canopy narrative evoked by the architects, an overhang subtly signals the entrance to the main pavilion. Inside, the visitor’s gaze is attracted towards the ceiling, where a curvilinear shaft dominates the space. Architect Daniel Smith, who led the design of the project, recalls wanting to give the impression of “a break between trees, letting the sun in.” The more prosaic explanation is that the clerestory windows integrated in the lightwell are part of a carefully studied natural ventilation system, which cools the pavilion without mechanical air conditioning.

The structure is made of FSC-certified wood, and cedar is used extensively in the interior. In all, the use of wood sequesters 175 tonnes of CO2. Photo by Adrian Williams.

The client’s strong ecological agenda was key to all design decisions. As the architects write, “Each move was intended to contribute to the overall aesthetics of the pavilion, yet also play a role in the project’s sustainability.” A prime example is the lace-like wood slats on the exterior of the pavilions, reminiscent of willow branches. They act as a brise-soleil in the summer, while allowing the sunrays to penetrate deep in the building during the cooler seasons.

Exterior and interior finishes are mostly cedar. Various coatings were applied to the wood, according to its particular location and the effect desired. For instance, the exterior slats were treated with a coating that imitates the weathering process and will ensure a smooth transition in appearance as they age. Triple-glazed windows open up to the surroundings, while reflecting the natural beauty of the site when seen from the outside. It is to be hoped that birds won’t be fooled by the illusion.

Site plan, showing discovery centre at left and equipment rental facility at right. Courtesy Smith Vigeant.

The desire to use contemporary architecture to emphasize the individual identity of Quebec’s parks, rather than sticking to a nostalgic stereotype, is a welcome sign of evolving mentalities. Of interest as well is the freedom enjoyed by the architects, who were able to fully explore a conceptually driven approach, rather than just accommodating a set of functions.

There are a number of precedents for this creative climate in park and interpretive centre design. One of them is the Centre d’interprétation du Bourg de Pabos, built in the 1990s by Atelier Big City. Resulting from an early architectural competition, this modest, somewhat flamboyant pavilion set the tone for new directions in architecture and gave hope to generations of young architects in Quebec.

Traditional procurement methods are still all too prevalent for most building types in Quebec and in Canada. The incentive to come up with creative solutions is obviously not as strong for the architects as it is when they take part in a competition. In spite of this more constrained selection process, however, the jewel-like Îles-de-Boucherville pavilions are proof that, with the support of trusting clients, architects of talent such as Smith Vigeant can come up with surprising, wonderful solutions.

Odile Hénault is a Montreal-based architectural writer and communications consultant.

PROJECT The Discovery and Visitor Center of Îles-de-Boucherville National Park, Boucherville, Québec ARCHITECT Smith Vigeant architectes TEXT Odile Hénault PHOTOS Adrien Williams

CLIENT Sépaq (Société des Établissements de Plein Air du Québec) | ARCHITECT TEAM Daniel Smith RAIC, Stéphan Vigeant, Anik Malderis, Cindy Neveu, Mariana Segui, Maxime Varin, Karolina Jastrzebska, Jennifer Ashley Dyke | STRUCTURAL WSP (Nicol Girard) | MECHANICAL Bouthillette Parizeau (Jacques Lagacé, Michel Primeau) | ELECTRICAL Bouthillette Parizeau (Paola Borjas) | CIVIL WSP (Soheil Nakhostin) | LANDSCAPE Groupe BC2 (Carole Labrecque) | INTERIORS Smith Vigeant architectes | CONTRACTOR Construction R. Bélanger | AREA 510 m2| BUDGET $4 M | COMPLETION August 2017

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 238 kWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK (Natural Resources Canada, other commercial/institutional buildings from 2010 or later) 305 kWh/m2/year | WATER USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 0.38 m3/m2/year | BENCHMARK (RealPAC water benchmarking pilot, 2012) 0.98 m3/m2/year