All the Right Angles: Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette, Quebec
PROJECT Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette, Quebec
ARCHITECT Les Architectes FABG
TEXT David Theodore
PHOTOS Steve Montpetit
Joliette sits about 50 kilometres northeast of Montreal and 10 kilometres north of the St. Lawrence. It’s home to the internationally acclaimed Festival de Lanaudière, an annual summer celebration of classical music. When you drive in by car—and there is little chance that you’ll arrive by any other means—you’re greeted by a bright, cantilevered box that slides out over a podium of white concrete steps. This is the sparkling new addition to the Musée d’art de Joliette (MAJ). You can’t miss it.
Éric Gauthier, FIRAC, of Les Architectes FABG, which designed the two-storey addition to an existing structure known as “the bunker,” says that the aim was to open up the museum to the community. Annie Gauthier, the MAJ’s director, came to him with a vision to make the institution a bigger part of everyday life in the city. That mandate follows a worldwide focus on how museum design can impact the visitor experience. In Manhattan, for instance, the Whitney Museum has moved from Marcel Breuer’s inward-looking 1966 building to an airy, glass-faced Renzo Piano building attached to the High Line. “With the addition in Joliette, the idea is to attract the public and to bring the art works forward to the community, so that people participate not just in a museum visit, but in a cultural event,” says Gauthier. “The architecture is the setting for that event.”
Easier said than done, perhaps, in rural Quebec. Joliette—population 19,958—began as a couple of saw mills on the banks of the Assomption River in the early 19th century. It started to grow into a regional centre with the arrival of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur from France in 1847. This Roman Catholic teaching order established the Séminaire de Joliette, whose heritage buildings are just across the road from the MAJ. Now, however, the city is marked by suburban sprawl. Even a welcome 2009 revamp of the main downtown plaza, Place Bourget, by architects Daoust Lestage, has had little effect on the centrifugal forces affecting Joliette.
The existing museum was built in 1976. A model made by Father Wilfrid Corbeil provided the inspiration for the architecture. In 1942 Corbeil had helped set up a collection of modern and religious art in the Séminaire de Joliette that is the core of the MAJ’s collection today. His model belied a love of Le Corbusier, but the building ended up as a rough agglomeration of blank concrete boxes. By the time FABG was commissioned, it had been renovated twice, and still needed a complete replacement of its electrical and mechanical systems. Administrative offices and some storage facilities had to be renovated. And it leaked.
Beyond addressing these problems, Gauthier’s design added three volumes that transform the building, yet continue its existing rectangular geometry. “We wanted to exploit the orthogonal tension in the project,” says Gauthier. “I believe in the power of the meeting of the right angle.” FABG painted the original concrete building charcoal grey, so that it now acts as a backdrop to the addition. Two glass boxes lie on the X and Y axes. They do not add more dedicated gallery space. Rather, they contain column-free, multifunctional rooms that allow for a wide range of activities—from art courses and concerts to exhibitions and parties. They have all been fitted out in the same way, with acoustic panels, technical services, white-painted steel structure and polished concrete floors.
New interacts with old in a straightforward manner: both the existing and added structural components are exposed, and the old brick and concrete have been cleaned up to harmonize with the new white paint. By removing a concrete floor, Gauthier transformed the main lobby into a light-filled two-storey hall, wrapped by pinwheeling staircases. A new terrace on the second level affords dramatic views of the river. The result is a raw look familiar in contemporary art museums, done here without a fetish for minimalism.
The third volume, a tower clad in frosted glass, adds a vertical element to the composition. On the inside, visitors can climb up a steel stair to an observatory. It’s an appropriate setting for artist Claudie Gagnon’s Collections: Suspended Time, funded by the provincial government’s 50-year-old program to integrate art into public buildings. Gagnon created a glittering chandelier-like cascade of a hundred-odd glass and crystal objects, including measuring cups and laboratory flasks. Like the architecture, it’s shiny, yet familiar and restrained, all at once.
Gauthier is something of an authority on public architecture in Quebec. He’s one of the main architects giving physical form to the ongoing secularization of Quebecois life that began with the Quiet Revolution. He has designed over 30 cultural projects across the province, starting with the reconfiguration of Buckminster Fuller’s Expo 67 pavilion into the Biosphere museum (1990). Just down the river from the MAJ, he also designed the Théâtre Hector-Charland (1999) and a college sports centre in the town of Assomption (2008). This past year alone, FABG has finished two theatre centres: Le Carré 150 in Victoriaville, central Quebec; and Espace Théâtre Muni-Spec in Mont-Laurier, up north. That’s impact.
Gauthier’s team espouses a restrained strategy for design and construction. “We use a variation of the same ideas on each project—panelization of the envelope, some technical details, structural steel—and then each time we try to add another tool to the toolbox.” At the MAJ, one new tool is the use of white concrete for stairs both inside and out. A second is the emphasis on what he calls “flexibility.” Gauthier says that he always aims for neutral spaces, because “when architecture gets too specific, especially with materials, it takes away from the possibility of appropriation, of the ability to see yourself in it.”
What Gauthier sought was an architecture that would activate the museum’s public programs and outreach. In order to do that, the addition eschews program-driven design for something closer to Mies van der Rohe’s concept of universal space. The design gives few cues about how the rooms should be used, allowing the museum to use them as they wish. According to Gauthier, this strategy of restraint has worked. The addition is attracting a new public, and acts as an appropriate setting—whether it’s hosting a corporate fundraiser on the roof terrace or a concert in the entrance hall. “It’s full of events, non-stop.” The museum is working its way into the heart of the community.
Even so, the addition is a reluctant icon. The outside offers the drama of the cantilever, but overall the project goes against our cultural desire for bling. For Gauthier, restraint is a part of the architect’s responsibility when building with public funds. Cultural projects can be meaningful to a community without seeking spectacle. “I don’t think we do grand architecture,” says Gauthier. “But with each project we try to do something adequate and appropriate.” Perhaps good architecture really is as simple as that: addressing basic problems with sobriety, a good eye, and a love of the right angle.
David Theodore, MRAIC, is Assistant Professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.