European Influence

Project Europa Vieux Montreal

Architect Les Architectes Boutros Et Pratte

Text Rhys Phillips

Photos Robert Etcheverry

The success of Quebec firms in this year’s Governor General’s Awards for Architecture has been attributed in part to the province’s policy requiring design competitions when providing capital funding for new cultural facilities. Perhaps less well known but equally important for Montreal’s current renaissance have been a series of public/private initiatives combining quality architecture and thoughtful urban design to rehabilitate badly frayed downtown districts.

These partnerships, involving all levels of government, affected property owners and the province’s unique pension-based investment funds, focus on establishing distinct mixed-use quartiers but with a particular economic focus. Recently, for example, the RAIC recognized the Quartier international de Montral (Le consortium Daoust Lestage inc. and Provencher Roy + Associs) with a 2006 National Urban Design Award. Such major interventions have also helped stimulate strong private-sector projects in surrounding areas.

Europa Vieux Montral, otherwise known as Europa 6, a nine-storey condominium project with a street-based retail podium, is an indirect consequence of both one such district as well as Quebec’s propensity for design competitions. Designed by Les architectes Boutros et Pratte, the competition-winning project is located just north of the restored Lachine Canal and along McGill Street, a major north-south urban avenue that serves as a border between Montreal’s Old Town and its equally historic industrial district of Faubourg des Rcollets to the west.

The latter has undergone a major redevelopment as Cit Multimdia, a new employment district focused on the communications high-tech sector. As a consequence, nearby historic warehouses and factories have been transformed into upscale residential lofts. On vacant land bordering the canal and along the narrow, intimate streets of the Faubourg, new Modernist condominiums and townhouses have also resulted.

One such largely empty site was a 1,837-square-metre half-block wedged between McGill and Soeurs-Grises Streets and bordered to the north across D’Youville Street by a small, one-block park. Its owners, the city’s la Socit de Dveloppement du Montral, sponsored a design/build competition for a residential project in 2000. The winning scheme was developer J-P Houle with Boutros and Pratte, a partnership that had already realized five critically acclaimed Europa residential projects in Montreal’s Outremont district.

Partner-in-charge Raouf Boutros’ design evolved out of two primary investigations. The first involved a very intensive reading of the urban and historic context of a site destined to be an important component in the revitalization of south McGill. The second, stemming from what Boutros once told me was his “war against the corridor,” was the intent to assemble a plan and section that eschewed the typical double-hung slab with centre hallways.

The surviving urban fabric of McGill is delineated by imposing Beaux-Arts buildings on its east but on its west by continuous, more modestly scaled 19th-century commercial blocks. These blocks are further subdivided into relatively narrow faades, each typically representing an original business. “They have simple, rectangular plans that run from McGill through to Soeurs-Grises,” states Boutros, whose office is in one such unit, “and their three-part elevations are marked by high, transparent first floors, middle sections with rhythmic vertical openings and strong capping cornices.”

Within this context, the project site was an anomaly. Originally a shipyard, it was purchased by the Grand Truck Railway in 1915 to be the northern terminus of the Montreal and Southern Counties Railway, a commuter rail line serving the south shore. Its only structure, which the proposal call asked to be preserved, was the railway’s picturesque passenger terminal (1923) on the corner of McGill and D’Youville.

There was never a desire to replicate or mimic the local historical architecture, Boutros continues. Rather, “the intent was to surround the renovated station with strong contemporary residential form but with nuanced design gestures that establish continuity with the historic fabric and texture of the old city.” At the same time, he wanted to avoid what he considers to be the inhospitable, single exterior elevation of most North American apartments.

For some time, Boutros has employed alternative solutions to this challenge. His model, of course, is the European perimeter block that often provides both street and courtyard elevations. At his earlier L-shaped Europa 4, for example, the centre courtyard is boxed in by an elevator-serviced system of stacked catwalks that extend to each unit and permits such an arrangement. The narrow site of Europa 6, however, necessitated a different configuration if this was to be achieved within budget constraints.

He first wrapped a nine-storey block around the train station and then carved out two street-facing slabs by extracting a 10-metre-wide centre piece from above the first level. These were then reconnected with two slim banks of glazed walkways that bridge the central courtyard and slice through the two volumes. On the north elevation of the shorter McGill-facing block, however, the walkway appears above the train station as an eight-storey translucent screen. On this semi-transparent, white fritted canvas, the pattern of the railway tracks that originally crossed the site has been traced in black ceramic silkscreen as if ascending from the restored station.

As a result of the bridges, all the 56 cooperative apartments are through-units opening both into the courtyard and onto the street. “This means,” Boutros maintains, “better cross ventilation, more and time-varied light penetration and a stronger sense of community intimacy for the residents.” Second-level units also have access to their own individual garden terraces, delineated by hedges and each centred on a large tree planted in a deep soil trough.

Two compact, crisply minimalist lobbies off McGill provide elevator and stair access to the west-side units reached by traversing the suspended bridges. Owners are thus provided with striking views of the harbour and the city on the way to and from their units. At the same time, says Boutros, from surrounding streets and the park (now being redeveloped), residents also become part of an animated tableau as they cross behind the screen of the north walkways.

The street elevations take their horizontal division from the tripartite context of historic west McGill. Transparent street-level commercial units open onto both McGill and Soeurs-Grises, and are 5.5 metres tall, matching the height of the train station’s cornice. Six of the eight condominium floors above are in reddish brick consistent with nearby industrial buildings. The double-height penthouses, however, are rimmed by recessed terraces and clad in tin-coated copper, which both in form and material serve to reference the modest but distinct cornices of the older nearby buildings. Vertically, elevations divide into discrete “columns” of windows and punched balconies that sustain a spatial rhythm consistent with the commercial fronts to the north.

From its exterior, Europa 6 neatly succeeds in playing two seemingly contradictory roles within its urban context. In its form, materials and approach to the street, it relies on contemporary but sympathetic gestures to ensure a discreet blending with surrounding historical precedents. At the same time, the striking graphic of the north walkway produces a beguiling marker for a major urban street set on regaining its past grandeur. What is not so obvious but equally important, however, is its success in creating apartment unit plans that significantly improve the quality of urban life.

Rhys Phillips works at the Canadian Human
Rights Commission and has been writing on architecture and urban design for the past 20 years.

Client Jean-Pierre Houle

Architect Team Pierre Abdulnour, Thierry Beaudoin, Maryse Bissonette, Raouf Boutros, Julie Charbonneau, Mallory Conway, Enrique Flores, Daniel L’heureux, Normand Pratte

Structural Boulva, Verganelakis & Associes

Mechanical/Electrical Gk Consultants Inc

Landscape Jean-Jacques Binoux, Les Architectes Boutros + Pratte

Contractor Altapex Construction Corporation

Area 13,410 M2

Budget $12 M

Completion April 2004