Down by the Riverside: Promenade Samuel-De Champlain, Phase 3, Quebec City, Quebec

A delightful addition to Quebec City’s Promenade Samuel-De Champlain gives residents new opportunities for leisure on the St. Lawrence River’s shores.

A sandy beach, swimming area, and splash pad form a popular destination in the new park. Just west of this, the former St-Michel Pier was turned into an evocative exterior space. Photo by Maxime Brouillet

PROJECT Promenade Samuel-De Champlain, Phase 3, Quebec City, Quebec

ARCHITECT Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker

TEXT Odile Hénault

In 2008, as Quebec City celebrated its 400th anniversary, its citizens received a major birthday present from the provincial government: a stunning 2.5-kilometre park along the St. Lawrence River. It was Phase 1 of Promenade Samuel-De Champlain (see CA, November 2008), named after the French explorer who founded the city in 1608. Designed by Montreal-based Daoust Lestage (now Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker) in collaboration with Williams Asselin Ackaoui and Option aménagement, the project was met with great enthusiasm as people flocked to it at all times of the day and in all seasons. 

Extending the Promenade

Fifteen years later, in 2023, a second stretch of this waterfront park has opened to the city’s residents. (A short connecting path west of the initial phase was completed in 2016, so the current project is technically the Promenade’s Phase 3.) Thankfully, the consortium led by Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker was once again commissioned to design this recent leg of the project. This meant continuity: in terms of philosophy, attitude to design, and architectural language. As in the 2008 project, wood was the signature material used for the Promenade’s pavilions, large and small, and for the urban furniture provided throughout. 

During the first phase, the architects had faced a number of challenges related to reclaiming the site from its previous industrial uses. To reconnect Quebec City’s residents to the river, they created a linear park, with a pedestrian path, bicycle trails, and access to the shore. The design was punctuated by thematic pier-shaped poetic gardens, evocative of the St. Lawrence’s tidal waters, windy storms, misty days, and the centuries-long presence of humans on the river. Phase 1’s focal point was the Quai des Cageux, a reference to the courageous raftsmen who floated logs down the St. Lawrence towards the coves of Sillery, the final destination for enormous quantities of timber bound for England.

Two decades later, preparations for the Promenade’s recent extension were equally—if not more—challenging. Significant infrastructural changes were needed to open up the site, including the relocation of the road—a process initiated in Phase 1—and its transformation into an urban boulevard with integrated parking. On another front, negotiations with CN authorities led to the shifting of a freight rail corridor closer to the nearby cliff. Thanks to these two major changes, some 37 acres of land were unlocked for recreational use. 

In the Coastal Meadows sector, the long-neglected Frontenac Pier was revitalized, allowing Quebec City’s residents and visitors to approach the river. The Samuel-de Champlain linear park, which now spans over five kilometres, includes parallel pedestrian and cyclist trails, as well as a new urban boulevard with integrated parking. Photo by Stephane Groleau

A design shaped by history

As the concept for the new 2.5-kilometre addition to the Promenade was being developed, it became obvious that history would play a significant role in the design. Remnants of former wharves were still present, severely damaged from decades of neglect. One of these was Frontenac Pier, a favourite spot for Sunday strollers in the first half of the 20th century. Then there was Foulon Beach, once a major summer attraction: traces of it were still visible along the shore, but, more importantly, memories of it endured in older citizens’ minds. Finally, a few hundred metres east from the beach, an existing marina was to be upgraded and incorporated into the new park. These three locations became the focal points of a triad of distinct sectors, each of which is served by a new pavilion: the Pavillon de la Côte, at the western end, the Pavillon des Baigneurs, serving the beach area, and the Pavillon de la Voile, next to the marina. 

The surrounding park was designed to reflect current ecological concerns. Major efforts were made to preserve and revitalize existing ecosystems, including ecologically sensitive marshlands. This led to the planting of over 1,000 trees and 29,000 shrubs, as well as the widespread re-introduction of plant species such as lyme grass, native to the St. Lawrence shores. Much appreciated by the public are three giant “pebbles,” placed along a sinuous path, which provide perfect observation posts for enjoying the new landscape and watching ships passing close by.  

In the Coastal Meadows section, mounds inspired by pebble forms punctuate swaths of Indigenous shoreline plants. Photo by Maxime Brouillet

The Promenade’s brightest jewel is its central sector, where the historic sand beach was resuscitated in the form of an infinity pool, cleverly inserted in the St. Lawrence River. There is an obvious reference to the seaside basin (1966) designed by a young Álvaro Siza Vieira in his native Matosinhos, Portugal. Of course, six decades—and the Atlantic Ocean—separate the two. The Portuguese pool is inserted among the rocky shores of a wild Atlantic—a stark contrast to the park setting of the Promenade’s pool, and the relatively tame shores of the St. Lawrence—which in part explains Siza’s use of robust monolithic concrete walls.

This 1955 photograph illustrates the popularity of the former Foulon Beach as a swimming spot during hot summer days. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada

The Pavillon des Baigneurs expresses strength in its own way. The two-storey volume is much more elaborate than the smaller wood pavilions that Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker has placed elsewhere along the Promenade. The added level of complexity relates to the pavilion’s program, but also to the site’s topography, since the building acts as a transition point between the new urban boulevard and the shore, four metres below. A break in the pavilion’s stark granite walls marks the entrance to an upper-level restaurant, with an outdoor terrace facing the river. It also opens to an exterior stair leading towards the beach. 

At the bottom, a sandy expanse is capped by the pool, whose infinity edges create the illusion of its being part of the St. Lawrence. It’s a source of absolute delight, particularly for those of us who were children in the fifties, and who still remember the original beach. Younger generations—and new residents—are just as thrilled to discover this unusual bathing spot, more akin to a riverine beach than to a typical sports facility.

Standing at the upper floor terrace of the Pavillon des Baigneurs, visitors enjoy views of the beach and swimming area below, and the St. Lawrence beyond. The Pavillon’s white interiors are a whimsical allusion to seaside cottages. Photo by Adrien Williams

In actuality, the pool, 1.2 metres at its deepest point, is totally contained within concrete walls that, even at high tide, prevent the St. Lawrence waters from flowing into it. Adjacent to the pool is a shallow basin—just a few centimetres deep—where intermittent water jets are an attraction for young children or those just wanting to wet their feet. 

Faced with pool safety requirements and wanting to avoid the ubiquitous chain-link fence, the architects went on a worldwide search for a barrier that could disappear when the pool was open. They found what they were looking for in Poland, where they sourced retractable post fences that they were able to adapt to the needs of the project. The elegant solution matches the pool area’s bespoke lifeguards’ chairs and echoes the minimalism of the portals used throughout the Promenade to help break down its scale.

A wide granite staircase brings visitors from the urban boulevard down to the beach. The Pavillon des Baigneurs’ solid granite base contrasts with a lighter, wood-clad cantilevered volume, containing a beach-facing restaurant. Photo by Stephane Groleau

A new phase, an old conclusion

In 2008, I concluded my first article on the Promenade Samuel-De Champlain with the following words: “The project truly shows what can be accomplished when enlightened professionals manage to convince politicians to move towards the completion of a visionary concept. […] One can only hope this project will be a source of inspiration for professionals and politicians around the country as waterfronts and former industrial areas are being adapted to the 21st century’s new realities.” 

Unfortunately, the inspired vision that has led to the success of the Promenade Samuel-De Champlain continues to be rare. This April, the Crown Corporation which oversees Montreal’s Old Port announced that, for “financial reasons,” its 2017 project to revitalize the area would not be implemented as designed. The project, also by Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, is a refined proposition that would have gone a long way to mend the unfortunate, piecemeal approach adopted in the Old Port since the destruction of Silo no. 2 in 1978. 

The same firm also authored an admirable proposition for the National Memorial to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan. Last fall, the project was declared the jury-selected winning entry of an architectural competition held by the federal government, only for the decision to be overturned by the same administration in favour of an approach focused on more literal imagery.

What is obvious from these two recent events is that the message is not getting through to politicians. Fortunately, professionals continue to champion quality architecture at the urban scale: the Promenade Samuel-De Champlain was the recipient of the Ordre des Architectes du Québec’s Grand Prix d’excellence, the highest honour in its awards program. It is a well-deserved recognition of the value of contemporary, urbane architecture as practiced by Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker.

Odile Hénault is a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.

CLIENT Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec (CCNQ) | ARCHITECT TEAM Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker—Réal Lestage, Eric Lizotte, Caroline Beaulieu, Lucie Bibeau, Grégory Taillon, David Gilbert, Mélissa Simard, Luca Fortin, Maria Benech | CONSORTIUM  – LANDSCAPE Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, Option aménagement et Williams Asselin Ackaoui | PARTNER Ministère des Transports et de la Mobilité durable  | ENGINEERING AtkinsRéalis, WSP, Tetra Tech | PROCESS ENGINEERING François Ménard | CONSTRUCTION MANAGER Pomerleau | CONTRACTORS Construction BML (Station de la Côte, station de la Voile and Boulevard); Construction Deric); Station de la plage, mirror of water and the swimming area); Construction Citadelle (Pavillon de la Côte and Pavillon de la Voile); Bauvais & Verret (Pavillon des Baigneurs) | AREA 150,000 m2 (Promenade) + 1,200 m2 (Buildings) | BUDGET $135 M | COMPLETION July 2023

As appeared in the June 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine