Express Lane

Text Rhys Philips

Photos Robert Etcheverry

“Big box architecture” surely resonates as an oxymoron, easily dismissed as typically generic, throw-away blocks of Styrofoam and stucco fronted by mean asphalt deserts. Montreal’s Les Architectes Boutros et Pratte, Georges Ghrayeb and brothers Elie and Jamil Cheaib, partners in the small supermarket chain called Adonis, think otherwise. Last spring, the second Adonis supermarket designed by the firm opened on Boulevard des Sources on Montreal’s West Island. With its street-hugging placement, transparency, richness of materials and colours, animation of form and use of natural light, it stands as a refreshing antidote to the dreariness of Wal-Mart and its sisterhood of suburban competitors.

The idea, states Raouf Boutros, was to capture the feel of a traditional European open-air market spanned by a protective roof sheltering a large open space for food stalls. For Adonis, the result is a massive canted roof that seems almost to float above its largely transparent street faade. At the southwest corner, tucked under its sheltering eave, the store’s “administration box” hovers above a formal glazed entrance addressing the busy street. Clad in interlocking terra cotta panels from Germany, this more solid object is intended to read as a typical residual market structure appended over the years.

“We ensured maximum transparency,” says Boutros, “in order to communicate the dynamic active life both inside and out on the city street and then added a caf terrace along the sidewalk to emphasize the market’s social role.” At night, light is projected onto the underside of a monumental Modernist portico that shelters and welcomes shoppers entering from the side parking lot.

Inside, the voluminous space is awash with natural light from the front and south faades as well as the extensive clerestory windows. “We used the same materials inside and out,” Boutros continues, “which, along with all the glazed walls, supports the sense of an open market.” Colours, including yellow glass panes, terra cotta panels and blue painted metal structure, he adds, create impact and emotion.

What most visually animates the interior, however, is a giant, blue box-beam that spans the entire front elevation. As it tapers to the north, it bursts free of the store’s main volume to become an exterior gateway for the loading area. But inside, a flight of bright green stairs ascends to a caf tucked inside the beam where customers can sip coffee while overlooking both the bustling store and the sophisticated landscaping around the street terrace.

Both Adonis stores have proven to be huge market draws, proving again that good design is constrained not by business necessity but by creative timidity.

Rhys Phillips is Director, Policy and Legislation for Employment Equity at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He has been writing on architecture and urban design for 17 years.