Dancing up a Form: Espace danse Wilder Building, Montreal, Quebec

In downtown Montreal, in response to longstanding requests for a dance centre in Quebec, the Espace danse Wilder Building has finally arisen. Centred on the historic brick façade of the 1918 Wilder Building, a former furniture factory and office, it’s eleven storeys high and half a block long. The architects, a consortium of Lapointe Magne and Ædifica, have not transformed the building into a seamless iconic sculpture, but that was never their intention. Instead, new additions break up this potential monolith into shifting, multi-storey boxes. Passersby might take it for three buildings collaged together side-by-side. A jumble, even. But make no mistake: the fragmentation is a sophisticated and characteristically Montrealish way of using architecture to make a city. Each element in the collage responds to a pragmatic decision about budgets and clients, honed with only as much precision as was worthwhile. Does it work? That depends on whether you value architecture more as a way to engage with the city than as a way to embellish it. Embellishment is fine, but engagement done like this is better.

Espace Danse Wilder Building. Photo by David Boyer.
Espace Danse Wilder Building. Photo by David Boyer.

Espace danse groups together four dance companies: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, l’Agora de la danse, Tangente, and l’École de danse contemporaine de Montréal. It also has four floors of offices for two Quebec government ministries (the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec). The jumble of materials and volumes identifies each of the architect’s six clients, inside and out. The architects have used this strategy before. For Théâtre Espace Libre, for instance, winner of a Governor General’s Medal in 2006, Lapointe Magne made a playful collage of doors and stairs giving each of the three resident theatre companies their own civic address—in imitation of the way Montreal’s triplex row housing works.

The design is particularly inventive in terms of section. Between the Wilder’s two arms, the architects slipped a six-storey wing containing 
a 160-seat performance venue for Tangent and the Agora, as well as four studios for the École de danse. To the South, an eight-storey wing houses the Grands Ballets. This includes seven studios of various dimensions, which can also be used for classes for amateurs, and a rehearsal hall that echoes the dimensions of the main stage at nearby Place des Arts. Each of these wings has its own internal staircases, but the principal circulation is in the Wilder. It acts as a spine for the entire project, with the various companies spiralling off in three dimensions.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
The ground floor foyer runs from the main entrance on De Bleury Street to the Place des Festivals. Photo by David Boyer.

Each element also gets its own façade treatment. The north wing boasts striped lime-green fritted glass. The south wing is covered 
in vertically set black brick, indicating the full-size rehearsal studio 
behind, and then above that a six-storey box of dance studios wrapped in white fritted glass. The choreographers asked for no direct sunlight, so the architects chose light-diffusing insulated panels. The white 
blob pattern covers the exterior in a single one-off image, while the green fritted glazing is made up from a repeating pattern.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
Dancers rehearse in an eight-floor studio. Photo by Michel Brunelle.

At the rear of the building, the designers faced an unusual urban challenge. The building once stood on a back lane but now forms the edge of the Place des Festivals, an open public promenade created by paving over what used to be the other half of the city block. This meant that the backside of the Wilder would now be one of the most prominent façades in the city, seen by every visitor to the cascade of downtown festivals now offered year-round. In turn, the rear façade, which 
shields administrative offices, needed considerable sound attenuation. The Place des Festivals additionally requested that the building serve 
as a giant projection screen for their programming. Finally, the Wilder building has an exposed concrete frame structure with brick infill, which needed upgrading for thermal performance. The architects’ solution was to hang a new curtain wall, which contains a serigraphed pattern, in front of the old façade. The ghost of the old trabeated structure remains visible through the new glazing, especially at night.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
On the second floor, a vertical glass slot links the South Annex with the 1910 brick Blumenthal Building. Photo by Michel Brunelle.

Yet another challenge came on the south side, which connects to the Blumenthal Building, headquarters of Montreal’s International Jazz Festival. Starting from an agreement to move the electrical substation further north, the architects arranged to integrate Espace danse with the Maison de Jazz. They closed off the back lane and made a new shared loading dock, and, most visibly, enclosed the lane so that the external wall of the Blumenthal building became the internal wall of the Espace danse. The two buildings made shared arrangements to meet fire code requirements.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
The Agora de la danse performance studio on the second level. Photo by Michel Brunelle.

It’s in the lobby that you can begin to see the drawbacks to the design. The entrance lobby is tight—smaller than it should be, because room was needed for the addition of a rehearsal hall for the Agora. That hall 
is pushed into the basement, its glass enclosure the site of an artwork by Ianick Raymond, installed as part of Quebec’s art requirement for publicly funded buildings. Once inside, you can go up a stairway to the foyer of the small performance hall, or continue to the back where there is a café, an entrance to the restaurant, and a door to the Place des Festivals.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
The facade presents a rich pattern by day and occasionally serves as a projection screen for the Place des Festivals at night. Photo by Michel Brunelle.

In the lobby, the architects put a new round column, positioned a few inches away from one of the chamfered columns of the Wilder. They scrupulously scraped and cleaned the old, so that together, painted white, they provide a sculptural moment and a centrifugal point for the spiralling plan. Yet that is one of the few places where the old has been carefully incorporated; most of the time, the treatment of the old 
is much rougher. And that is simply due to budget constraints. The architects had $100 million to build 23,800 square metres, including 
remediation, three-quarters of which came from three levels of government, and the remaining amount through private fundraising, especially a contribution from long time President of Les Grands Ballets Constance V. Pathy. But that private money served to only to make the budget adequate, not to augment it. And there’s the rub. The approach to renovation seen in those two lobby columns might have been 
extended to the entire building. That’s how to do architecture right.

Espace Danse Wilder Building, Lapointe Magne, AEdifica
Espace Danse. Photo by Michel Brunelle.

The other drawback to this project is that its idiom has been mainstream for a long while. Budgetary and programmatic constraints mean that new cultural buildings in Montreal have all been using the same means: the same details, the same fritted glass, the same bricks. It’s perhaps excessive to suggest that an entire way of commissioning architecture has run out of steam, but the downsides of this project are all-too apparent in other recent projects, too. A review of government funding formulas would help, as would a review and expansion of the tendering procedures used for commissioning public architecture in Quebec, for there’s only so much that can be done with limited resources. Architecture is a collaborative effort. So let me be clear: the architects have done their job well. Now it’s up to the clients, the government and the citizens of Quebec to do theirs, by providing architects with the resources they need to take their work to the next level.

David Theodore is Canada Research Chair at the McGill University Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture.
Photography: Michel Brunelle, David Boyer


Client Société québécoises des infrastructures | Architect Team Michel Lapointe, Patrick Bernier, Jean-Philippe Brouillard, Nicolas Bokobza, Julie Bélanger, Vincent Coreini, Robert Leclerc, Robert Magne, Nguyen Trong tuan, Julie Charrette, François Massicotte, Frédérick Boily, Jean-Luc Vadeboncoeur, Naomi Frangos, Guy Favreau, Yves Proulx, Joannie Brouillard, Pascale-Lise Colin, Yuan June Hong, Philippe Pellegrino, Dany Durand-Courchesne, Sylvain Hardy |Structural Nicholas Chartrand/Knoll, SDK et associés | Mechanical Bouthillette Parizeau Electrical SNC-Lavalin |Scenography Trizart Alliance | Acoustics Octave  Acoustique | Contractor Pomerleau inc. | Area 23,800 m2 Budgetwithheld Completion February 2017