Canadian Architect

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Architects of the Quiet Revolution

An exhibition at UQAM’s Centre de design traces the ground-breaking work of Quebec firm Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc.

March 24, 2016
by Odile Hénault

The slickly modern Mirabel airport was one of PGL’s landmark projects. (Photo: Michel Brunelle)

The slickly modern Mirabel airport was one of PGL’s landmark projects. (Photo: Michel Brunelle)

TEXT Odile Hénault

Modest in size and with anaemic funding, UQAM’s Centre de design in Montreal has managed to maintain an elegance and steadfastness that can only be described as extraordinary. Host of one interesting show after another, year after year, the Centre focuses on contemporary trends related to the three disciplines taught at UQAM’s École de design: graphic arts, object design and architecture.

This time around, the Centre looked to the recent past to trace the trajectory of an architectural firm that had a huge impact on Montreal and on the development of the architectural profession in Quebec. The firm—still remembered fondly and with great respect—is Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc (PGL). Its influence was especially felt during the Quiet Revolution as well as throughout Pierre Trudeau’s tenure in Ottawa.

Exterior view of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. (Courtesy of BANQ)

Exterior view of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. (Courtesy of BANQ)

Initiated by the Centre’s current director, Professor Börkur Bergmann, and put together by co-curators Réjean Legault, Carlo Carbone and Louis Martin and their students, the show is aptly titled Une architecture du Québec moderne, 1958-1974 (An Architecture for Modern Quebec, 1958-1974). It explores an optimistic period during which Montreal leapt into the future, catching up after decades of domination by the Catholic Church and a Conservative government, deeply entrenched in tradition. Under Premier Jean Lesage, elected in 1960 along with his formidable team—they were known as l’Équipe du tonnerre (the thunder team)—Quebec opted for radical change. Health and education were taken away from ecclesiastical powers and placed under government jurisdiction. Architects were rushed into innumerable school and hospital projects throughout the province. Additionally, under Mayor Jean Drapeau, Montreal was designated to host the 1967 World’s Fair (when Moscow unexpectedly backed out) and started to build its first subway lines.

An interior view of the Papineau residence in Laval, Quebec. Photo: Hans Samulewitz (Collection of Jacques-Gilles Caron)

An interior view of the Papineau residence in Laval, Quebec. Photo: Hans Samulewitz (Collection of Jacques-Gilles Caron)

As the Liberals started to shake things up in Quebec, the firm Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc, launched in 1958 by three young McGill graduates, was on the front lines and ready to go. The first project shown in the chronologically arranged exhibition is the École Marie-Favery, which clearly demonstrates the architects’ tremendous desire to explore unexpected forms and geometries. Eight of the nine projects showcased—almost all of them built—are located in Montreal’s metropolitan area. They vary widely as far as building types and influences go, from Papineau’s own home, inspired by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, to a triangular concrete tower on the Université de Montréal’s campus, reminiscent of Paul Rudolph’s work, and the unusual design for Peel subway station, evocative of Pier Luigi Nervi.

Insulated modular panels are installed on the Gordon Robertson Secondary School in Frobisher Bay. (Courtesy of CCA, Montréal)

Insulated modular panels are installed on the Gordon Robertson Secondary School in Frobisher Bay. (Courtesy of CCA, Montréal)

The exhibition’s ninth section deals mostly with the Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq) airport. It also includes several Northern projects, the result of an intense investigative process to develop lightweight modular materials that could withstand the rigours of the climate and the challenges of short construction timelines.

Interior view of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. Photo: Noël Thomas J.R. (Collection of Georges Adamczyk)

Interior view of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. Photo: Noël Thomas J.R. (Collection of Georges Adamczyk)

The soaring atrium of Mirabel airport under construction (Courtesy of PWGSC)

The soaring atrium of Mirabel airport under construction (Courtesy of PWGSC)

Two projects stand out—the Quebec Pavilion built for Expo 67 (in collaboration with architect Luc Durand) and Mirabel Airport (in collaboration with architects Gordon Edwards and André Blouin). The latter evolved from a careful analysis of the most up-to-date airport facilities around the world. Regrettably, Mirabel was always better known for the controversy raised by the massive farmland expropriations that preceded its construction, rather than for its design qualities. This remains a touchy subject in Quebec, particularly in the years since 2004, when the airport was shut down to passenger traffic.

Views of the wood study models created for the exhibition by UQAM students. (Photo: Michel Brunelle)

Views of the wood study models created for the exhibition by UQAM students. (Photo: Michel Brunelle)

Throughout the exhibition are basswood models that explore a particular aspect of each of the projects, made by co-curator Carlo Carbone’s students. The original models of the Quebec Pavilion and that of Mirabel Airport are also displayed. Fortunately, the show’s curators were able to consult with Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of PGL’s founding members, who more than welcomed this unique opportunity to have some of his early works brought back to life.

During a study day organized by the École de design, Université de Montréal professor (and former Centre de design director) Georges Adamczyk delivered a particularly touching testimony as he remembered his time working at PGL during the sixties. He reminisced about the exhilarating atmosphere of the office—a feeling that reflected the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

Rendering of prototype modular plastic houses for Northern Canada (Courtesy of CCA, Montréal)

Rendering of prototype modular plastic houses for Northern Canada (Courtesy of CCA, Montréal)

What is PGL’s legacy? Even though technology has considerably modified the way architecture is being produced today, the level of research, experimentation and passion demonstrated by PGL in the sixties remains rather unique—as was the office’s inclusive attitude towards other disciplines. As Adamczyk recalls, there was a “resident philosopher” in the office, and painter Jean-Paul Mousseau (an artist in the Peel Station project) was considered a full-time team member. Adamczyk also remembered the importance the partners attached to contemporary music: “If Stockhausen was performing one evening in the city, absolutely everyone in the office was expected to go, without exception.”

Interior of Peel subway station just before opening in 1966. (Courtesy of Archives de Montréal)

Interior of Peel subway station just before opening in 1966. (Courtesy of Archives de Montréal)

Thanks to UQAM’s Georges Labrecque, who has been performing marvels at the Centre since its opening, the design of the show is thoughtful and sober. Although the exhibited documents—mostly photographs of archived sketches and drawings—appear as if they have been effortlessly gathered, the curators and researchers were faced with an unusual level of difficulty as they tried to access PGL’s archives, still awaiting processing, years after being entrusted to the CCA. The final hurdle was an untimely strike, launched by UQAM’s student staff, which effectively shut the exhibition down only three weeks after its opening.

Hopefully, after the exhibition finishes its run in Montreal, another venue will host this rich incursion into the brave sixties, lest we forget the heroic architects of our recent past.

Odile Hénault is an architecture critic, curator and professional advisor.