Field of Dreams
PROJECT Centre Culturel de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECTS AFO (Atelier Big City / FSA Architecture Inc. / L’OEUF s.e.n.c.)
TEXT Thomas-Bernard Kenniff
PHOTOS Ulysse Lemerise, unless otherwise noted
The new NDG Cultural Centre, just west of downtown Montreal, artfully manages the juggling act of both assertively standing out and respectfully fitting in. Rhythmic barn-red brick stripes rise around the Centre, resonating with both the agricultural past of its site and its contemporary urban context at the corner of the Benny Farm housing development. The architects conceived of a site-spanning carpet of parallel ground lines–imaginary furrows–turned up vertically as the scaffolding for a complex, polychromatic assemblage.
Designed by the team of Atelier Big City, L’OEUF, and FSA Architecture, the Centre resulted from a single-stage design competition in 2010; the design received a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 2012. It is the fourth completed project in a series of competition-procured libraries and cultural centres commissioned through Montreal’s Expansion, Renovation and New Construction program, and partly funded by the provincial government’s Ministry of Culture and Communications.
The competition called for a building that would house three major programs: a library to replace the existing Benny branch, a 180-seat performance venue, and a multipurpose media and exhibition room. The plan is a straightforward and sensible response: an L-shaped building with the library forming one wing and the performance hall the other. The media room and lobby reside at the hinge point. The overall volume completes the corner of Benny Farm, while framing a courtyard garden and parking, planted with fruit trees and native edibles. The efficiency and restraint of the spatial organization al-lowed the designers to concentrate their efforts on the architectonics of the building—and for complexity to emerge elsewhere.
As a start, take the perimeter, made of those red brick stripes along with perforated aluminum panels, both held on galvanized steel frames. The screen shifts vertically or outward with respect to the envelope at various points to mark entrances, accommodate slivers of landscape, or defer to a diagonal interior stair. To the south, it stops altogether to reveal the light blue volume of the performance hall. At the main entrance, the screen rises at the gateway to a two-storey-high forecourt, roofed with translucent glass.
Inside, Hal Ingberg’s Chromazone, produced by way of the scheme’s one-percent-for-art allocation, modulates the entry of daylight into the richly toned lobby. Ingberg’s glass installation resides between the lobby and an exterior courtyard on the mezzanine level, reached by an orange staircase in concrete and steel.
To the left, the cultural centre wing is organized with offices, circulation and services wrapping the performance hall. The hall—a black-box space with retractable seating—is the deepest of its type among Montreal’s cultural centres, and was specifically designed for dance. Large, sliding glass doors to the west connect the stage with a garden, so that performances can spill into an exterior theatre. The area is shaded by a giant silver maple preserved from the original farm, reportedly the largest tree on the site.
The library wing is organized around a central void, with content zoned by age groups. From the lobby, visitors trace a path up and through the building that passes through service, periodicals, children’s, adult and teen zones, the latter hanging over the entrance. Part of the children’s area is tucked under the central stairs, a move that creates a unique space while also mitigating noise. Generous, brightly coloured steps jut out of the far corner, connecting the children’s and adult sections—one of several carefully designed vertical connectors.
The main focus of the library is its central space, ringed by circulation and filled with a flight of wide, habitable stairs. The stepped platforms invite people to sit and read, or have casual conversations, yet simultaneously place them in full view. In effect, the architects have created a public theatre that puts readers in the spotlight at the heart of the library—the clever inverse of the cultural centre’s performance hall. As Marie D. Martel, advisor on libraries to the City of Montreal, puts it, the central void has been “hacked” to creatively remedy the absence of a community room in the building.
The whole project is structurally and formally guided by the striated field of the ground—those imaginary furrow lines that formed the datum of the project from the start. These lines, traced perpendicular to Monkland Avenue, are developed vertically as they touch the perimeter of the building in several ways, underlying the patterns of the building’s triple-skin. The first exterior skin is the strong urban face of the project; the second is made up of the curtain wall system, inside structure, and CLT wall and roof panels; and the final interior skin is composed of galvanized steel frames, holding expanded steel sheets in alternating orientations.
This multi-layered envelope geometrically connects the building’s interior with its exterior, while creating a marked contrast between the two. The exterior rhythm of the architecture is clear, with collisions between parts of the assemblage kept discreet. The rhythms deployed within, on the other hand, collide with diagonal members and other volumes, so that the reading of the whole demands sustained attention. From the outside, the building can be seen as both resting on, and emerging from, its striated ground field; inside, it is completely entwined in a complex of lines.
The materials for the project range widely, but they are carefully used. On the inside, structural steel, glass, ceramic tiles, galvanized steel, and exposed and lacquered concrete are balanced with the warmth of the CLT panels and coloured laminates. The majority of the building systems are left exposed, with a network of pipes and ventilation units populating the ceiling spaces and shell.
The work of Atelier Big City has long been associated with an intuitive and playful way of working with colour, and the Centre is no exception. The polychromatic hues are integral to the architecture rather than contrasting or neutral. Colourful painted surfaces and laminates are matched to the tones of raw materials used elsewhere. Colours both code the space and are a full-fledged dimension of its tectonics.
Overall, the assemblage quality of the whole is appropriate. With its Cedric Price-like atmosphere, it resonates with the transition of libraries towards becoming “third places” for leisure, socializing, learning and making. Its striated and heterogeneous architectural language seems to suggest the (sometimes chaotic) world of free, open access to information—in contrast to a smooth, quiet aesthetic that could be associated with streamlined information flows. The project presents itself as both an architectural object and a work in progress.
This may be a good thing, since some parts of the project require further refinement. As it stands, certain key elements of the competition-winning scheme have been compromised or simply abandoned. For instance, a decision to move the security checkpoints to the two exterior entrances, rather than having them at the interior library entrance, means that checked-in books can flow freely in the entire building—but also that the media room and café cannot open up directly to the forecourt, as planned for originally. Adjoining the forecourt, the design envisaged exterior stairs jutting out on a diagonal towards a bus stop—the exterior version of the stairs connecting the children’s and adult zones inside. During a recent visit, groups of school kids sat on the grass next to the bus stop, exactly where the stairs—which were removed for planning reasons during design development—would have been. Although the completed project is remarkable in its respect of the original scheme, revisiting and renegotiating these competition-phase ideas would improve it even further.
Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that this ambitious project was developed and constructed during a difficult time for the City of Montreal and its districts. The inquiry into corruption in the construction industry means that public projects built during the past 10 to 15 years are undergoing intense scrutiny. This is a time of well-founded skepticism towards civic institutions and politics.
In this climate, a design team with considerable respect for the local community has realized a project that achieves something vitally important for the city and its people—as well as for the province’s architecture.
As one of the prime interfaces between individuals and the municipality, the NDG Cultural Centre affirms the relevance of architecture for urban communities. Its furrows may have been scored in uneasy terrain, but from them grew an exemplary project of tremendous civic importance.
Thomas-Bernard Kenniff is a professor at the UQAM School of Design in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Architectural History and Theory from the Bartlett School of Architecture and a professional M.Arch from the University of Waterloo.