Interstitial Practices

Tomlinson Square at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
Marosi + Troy / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs

Like many architects, I love cities. Like many architects, I find myself lured to urban public places, to well developed urban space, to places that support human interaction. These are the places that we seek in our travels and that subsequently leave a memorable impression on us. They are the streets, alleys, squares and plazas which abound in the historical sectors of most cities, yet which are often absent in their modern counterparts. I am particularly attracted to small-scale, leftover spaces between buildings–urban interstices which, historically, provided opportunities for completing the urban fabric of our cities.

The idea of the urban interstice is not new. This type of space was a popular locus for architectural intervention for Renaissance, and particularly Baroque architects from Europe and the Americas. The proof of this is the great number of extant interstitial buildings and places from those periods: small squares, public stairs, fountains, votive buildings, and small chapels come to mind as anonymous examples. They are occasionally seasoned by the collective memory of significant and more ambitious urban interstitial realizations. Think, for instance, of the Spanish Steps (erected 1721-25) and the Fontana di Trevi (1732) in Rome.

This year, at McGill University in Montreal, the completion of a building complex dedicated to technology provided the opportunity to add another example to a contemporary list of interstitial interventions, numerous in other parts of the globe but scarce in the Canadian context. The new complex expresses the current preoccupation of linking and integrating science, medicine, engineering, and information technology. It occupies a significant area on the northeast sector of the main campus and lies on the slope of Mount Royal. Along the slope, five buildings surround and define what could have been a leftover space. This open space begins in the lower part of the quadrangle and unfolds to reach, on the higher level, the main faade of the oldest structure on the site, the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building (1908). The new enclosed urban space, originally a service road but now an ensemble of public places, was named Tomlinson Square to honour philanthropist Dr. Richard Tomlinson, the donor who provided approximately half of the funding for the implementation of the project.

Immediately flanking Strathcona Hall to the south are the two most recent buildings of the complex. The Genome Building, also known as 740 Doctor Penfield, lies on the west side of the site and was completed in 2003 by the Toronto firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects with Fichten Soiferman et Associs Architectes of Montreal. Directly opposite to the east is the Lorne M. Trottier Information and Technology Building designed by the Montreal firms of Marosi + Troy / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes, which was inaugurated last spring. These three buildings define the most important part of Tomlinson Square. To the south, the Ernest Rutherford Physics Building (1977) and the M. H. Wong Building (1997), both designed by Marosi + Troy, define the access promenade to the Square.

The joint venture of Marosi + Troy / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes, in consultation with the Montreal landscape firm Schme-Architecture Amnagement, received the commission to design Tomlinson Square. A significant stimulus for the implementation of the project was an agreement between the city–represented by the Commission Jacques-Viger–and the University. The accord provided criteria to optimize the outdoor urban space, an interstitial surface, as it were, into an articulated and supportive public place that would take advantage of the topography. An additional design requirement stipulated the simultaneous development of the designs for the two new buildings and their surrounding outdoor spaces.

Also worth mentioning is the suggestion to structure the project within the existing urban grid, following the precedents emerging from the historical stages of the development of the McGill campus. This criterion strongly influenced the design decisions taken by the architects of the new two buildings and Tomlinson Square. This is evident in the siting of the new structures, the treatment of the interstitial space between them, and the contiguous buildings to the south. The result is a composition consisting of a main north-south axis traversed by secondary axes–paths, stairs, and ramps. They consolidate the elongated quadrangle, which opens to the south and offers a grand perspective over the lower campus of the vibrant downtown skyline. The overall result is fluid barrier-free circulation along the various axes, reinforcing visual connections throughout the various buildings of the complex and the surrounding urban grid, and providing opportunities for the creation of outdoor meeting places. As pointed out by Dr. Tomlinson, these are areas “where students and faculty alike will come together to share ideas.”

Marosi + Troy / JLP’s urban project explores a realm rarely frequented by architects–that is, the articulation of the “architecture we walk on.” This is definitely one of the features of the project from which lessons can be drawn. Consider, for example, the crescendo of tactile experiences created by the textures made of various surfaces–concrete pavers, granite, wild grasses, stone, metal, various plant materials and water–which one subtly experiences when moving through the space or pausing in one of the sitting areas of the Square. Their varied arrangements serve to reinforce the character of each of the three areas of the project: the Magnolia Grove Promenade, the Fountain Court, and the Garden Court Parterre. Unfortunately, outlets from the Rutherford building create adverse micro-climatic conditions that have hindered the growth of the Magnolia trees along the Promenade.

Experientially, the Fountain and Garden Courts surrounded by the Genome Building, Strathcona Hall and the Trottier Building are ultimately those spatial components of the project that act as a true square. In this case, it is a highly articulated space consisting of various levels negotiated via ramps, stairs and terraces. The architects of the project had to resort to these devices, given the abrupt change of topography and the existence of other physical constraints which were skillfully turned into assets. Thus, the roof of an existing “immovable” service tunnel, which partially surfaced along the main axis, became a ramp. Or, a wall of the same tunnel extended upwards provides the opportunity to create the central focus of the Square: the monumental fountain. This pice de rsistance constitutes the symbolic centre of the urban space. Its reading admits multiple interpretations that include references to Feng Shui practices–the positioning of the fountain in relation to the Wong building for instance, or to ideas elicited by the experience of its materials–concrete, recycled limestone, COR-TEN steel, granite and water–and the processes that transform them.

The fountain has stepped basins, which allow a particular movement of the water, and these produce specific reflections and sonority. But it also includes steps that serve to connect three distinct areas of the Square: the terrace of the Genome building, the ramps over the service tunnel leading to the Square, and the terrace of the Trottier building. The fountain also acts as an important spatial element that articulates movement and views throughout the Square, acquiring a magical presence at night. At close range, the fountain ultimately expresses, as do the two sides of a coin, the respective phenomenal condition that each one of the buildings suggests in the background. A certain aloofness of the elegant Genome Building and its vast terrace contrasts with the more transparent and welcoming character of its counterpart of the Trottier Building with its terraces and urban furniture which invite human contact. T
his interstitial intervention by Marosi + Troy / JLP has engendered an unusual urban space, a memorable place that illustrates a basic principle of any architectural intervention: to enhance what already exists.

Ricardo L. Castro is an Associate Professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.

Client: McGill University

Architect Team: Erik Marosi, Martin Troy, Michelle Chan, Julie Charbonneau, Andrea Merrett, Carlo Rondina, Lily Lau, Katsu Yamazaki, Jean Martin, Rjean Gagn, Robert Perreault, Brian Rogers, Daniel Chabot, Yves Guernier

Structural: Nicolet Chartrand Knoll

Mechanical/Electrical: Groupe BPR

Landscape: Schme Consultants Inc.

Contractor: Salvex Inc. / Ct Jardin

Project Management: Decarel

Area: 2,950 m2

Budget: $1.4 million

Completion: June 2004

Photography: Jean Mercier, Copilia Design Inc., except where noted