Jump Start

PROJECT Conversion of Mies van der Rohe Gas Station, Verdun, Quebec
ARCHITECT Les Architectes FABG
TEXT Kyle Yen Burrows
PHOTOS Steve Montpetit

A master of Modernism, Mies van der Rohe’s strong architectural gestures have defined museums, skyscrapers and institutions the world over. But as with any great artist’s oeuvre, Mies’s lesser-known pieces offer some of the greatest insights into his craft. One such project is the Standard Oil Gas Station in Montreal, constructed a year before his death in 1968, to accompany the model residential community that Mies’s Chicago firm completed on Nuns’ Island. 

In size and formal expression, the construction resembles a seminal work from 40 years earlier: the Barcelona Pavilion. But while Barcelona may represent a distillation of his European work, Mies’s project in Montreal is a streamlined concretization of our continent’s capitalist aspirations. These two projects effectively serve as bookends for an illustrious career, demonstrating a continued exploration of material properties and powerful building tectonics. Unlike the garish stations that litter highways across the country, the Nuns’ Island Gas Station was a bold, architectural statement. The monochromatic project was more a monument to car culture than a convenience store, framing automobiles that passed through it with self-assured grace. But faced with advances in technology and increased development on the island, the building became obsolete, unable to adapt. Esso built a brand new service centre closer to the highway, and Mies’s station finally ceased commercial operations in 2008. Emptied out and boarded up, only a skeleton remained when the building was finally granted heritage status by the City of Montreal in 2009. Les Architectes FABG, led by principal Éric Gauthier, were challenged to breathe new life into this Miesian relic by transforming it into a youth and seniors’ maison des générations.

Gauthier faced a similar challenge in 1990, when tasked to reanimate the shell of Buckminster Fuller’s Expo ’67 American Pavilion. FABG deftly inserted a cluster of rectangular platforms into the core of the geodesic dome to transform the sphere into the Biosphère Environment Museum. Gauthier explains that the challenge in both cases was reducing the projects to their simplest expression, “revealing the essence of the building, not being distracted by the details.” In the case of the Verdun project, Gauthier says that the key was “to emphasize the strength of the roof.” 

Mies’s design is an orthogonal composition of two glass boxes at opposite ends of the station, collected under a floating slab-like steel roof. The jet-black grid of supporting beams and I-beam columns, made of welded steel plates, contrasts with the white steel deck ceiling. Volumetric and tonal polarities, held in place by the bold roof plane, gave the original project an energy that Gauthier pursued with Miesian rigour in his restoration. 

In the new community centre, the enclosed spaces originally designed for car servicing and sales have been redesignated as the White and Black Rooms, recognizable by their corresponding colours of linoleum flooring. “Once the functions are removed, you are able to make a pure statement of architecture,” says Gauthier. The original Mies furnishings had long since disappeared, so the interiors were each refashioned for their intended audiences. In the White Room, a largely empty interior allows older citizens to engage in a number of activities, from stretching courses to social dance. Long façades of full-height, low-iron glazing are achieved by compressing services to the shorter ends of the rectangular plan. The windows are partitioned into bays, neatly recalling the previous garage doors. At the opposite end of the former gas station, the smaller Black Room includes a solitary monolith of services, hovering off-centre in the space. This cleanly panelled volume includes a small office, washrooms, a storage room and cabinets full of equipment for ping pong, movie-watching and video games.

The sequence of glazed façades creates visual connections across the length of the pavilion. Spaces are further connected with longitudinal lines of fluorescent lighting. Exposed bulbs in the exterior spaces once illuminated cars passing under the radiant white ceiling. Gauthier has taken this device and extended it indoors, permeating the many layers of glass and steel with continuous luminous lines. “It is an illusion to think the building can be pure and unchanging,” explains Gauthier. “There is a need to adapt the project to the new conditions of our time.” But even with the seemingly mundane task of ventilating the building, FABG demonstrated considerable dexterity in respecting the Miesian vision of minimalism. Geothermal heating eliminated the need for ungainly radiators, and allowed the air circulation system to effectively disappear. The only visible element is a clever nod to the station’s previous purpose: fresh-air intakes designed to take the place of the former gas pumps. 

FABG’s intervention certainly appeals to the mantra of “less is more.” With its minimal, monochromatic rooms and oversized structure, the renovated gas station seems more an architectural object than an active building. But the restrained, almost self-effacing interiors serve a dual function, both highlighting the minimalistic rigour of Mies’s earlier design, and acting as a mute backdrop for the community centre’s daily activities. The memory of the gas station is not forgotten. But when the space is occupied, it becomes exceedingly clear that La Station has become something more. The rooms come alive with yoga performed on coloured mats, games displayed on giant screens, and cabinets that burst open to reveal jumbles of cables, ping pong paddles and Xbox controllers. The restraint shown by Gauthier and his team allows residents to appropriate this structure as their own, parking this heritage project firmly in the present. CA

Kyle Yen Burrows is an architectural graduate and freelance writer born and raised in Montreal.

Client Arrondissement de Verdun
Architect Team Éric Gauthier, Marc Paradis, Dominique Potvin, Jaime Lopez, Steve Montpetit.
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Aecom
Contractor Norgéreq
Area 3,625 ft2
Budget $1.4 M
Completion November 2011