September 1, 2015
by Thomas-Bernard Kenniff
Archaeological remains from Quebec City’s original shoreline feature prominently in the Musée de la civilisation’s Grand Hall. The building, designed by Moshe Safdie FRAIC, includes a cascade of indoor and outdoor courtyards that knit the museum into its tight urban site.
TEXT Thomas-Bernard Kenniff
Quebec City’s relationship with the St-Lawrence River is deeply ingrained in its local and national identities. In the last 40 years, many projects have attempted to reclaim the shores for its citizens, negotiating the complex overlap of municipal and federal jurisdictions, industrial shipping operations and the tourism industry. In the Old Port, where these relationships are at their most intricate, cruise liners bring thousands of visitors to the UNESCO world heritage site every summer, depositing them a stone’s throw from the 27-year-old Musée de la civilisation.
The articulation of the city’s relationship with the river was central to the 1980 competition for the museum, won by Moshe Safdie Associates with Belzile, Brassard, Gallienne, Lavoie (BBGL), Sungur Incesulu architecte, and DesnoyersMercure architectes. Developed during the first years that the Parti Québécois was in power (and launched during a referendum year), the competition touched on cultural identity while seeking the regeneration of the Old Port district.
After the museum opened in 1988, a review in The Canadian Architect debated the worth of its metaphorical language and architectural quotations. Twenty-seven years after its completion, the project’s success has hinged less on these factors than on the architectural form given to its institutional program and its spatial integration with the historic district.
Michel Côté, the museum’s director since 2010, has been involved with the Musée de la civilisation since 1987. He sees the project as a transition from museums as conservation centres to museums as social centres. The museum negotiates this transition both architecturally and institutionally by being “a welcoming and open place, a place of passages and exchanges.”
The Grand Hall remains to this day the project’s greatest strength: an airy interior space that welcomes over 600,000 visitors a year where one can see the exposed archaeological remains of the original shoreline and attend public events held by organizations including the nearby Laval University School of Architecture.
Located at the museum’s heart, the Grand Hall is part of a siting strategy that responds to the history and poetics of the site. The building connects to its urban context partly through visual elements, but mostly through a play on the existing street layout. Through its accessible roof terraces and central courtyards (one interior, another exterior), the museum supports the flow of people between front and back streets while keeping a fairly hermetic edge. The courtyard strategy, criticized in this magazine’s pages as an “enclave” and “microcosm,” now seems rather appropriate, reflecting local institutional typologies and the project’s infill context. The integration of a 20,250-square-metre building into the tight historical fabric of Quebec’s lower Old City deserves praise. Here, what Côté calls an “architecture of permeability” that enables the museum to act as a social centre is achieved without resorting to a fully transparent perimeter.
Recently, the City and the provincial government announced a new project to transform the surface parking lot across Dalhousie Street into an above-ground parking garage and public square. It is worth pausing to look back to the museum’s initial design—which included a second phase containing public amenities—that connected to the main museum under Dalhousie Street. In this original scheme, the central cleavage in the museum continues toward the river, and its accessible terraces cascade down to stairs that descend into the water. These 35-year-old ideas are worth reconsidering, as they may provide clues to how we might continue to successfully articulate the public realm of the city, especially where its relationship to the river is concerned.
Thomas-Bernard Kenniff holds a PhD in Architectural History and Theory from the Bartlett School of Architecture and a professional M.Arch from the University of Waterloo. He is currently Invited Professor at the UQAM School of Design.