Lamp of Knowledge

Project Bibliothèque Monique-Corriveau, Quebec City, Quebec
Architects Dan Hanganu Architectes and Côté Leahy Cardas Architectes
Text Thomas-Bernard Kenniff
Photos Stéphane Groleau

“Never forget where you are.” The reminder from architect Dan Hanganu is highly apropos for the Bibliothèque Monique-Corriveau (BMC) in Quebec City. In la belle province, where religious heritage is abundant—and its cultural value is often in question—the adaptive reuse of churches is not an easy proposition, and certainly never neutral. When converted to condominiums or commercial uses, the process often shines a harsh light on present-day society. The conversion of a church to a cultural program seems a more natural fit. In this charged context, the BMC addresses its delicate task brilliantly and with deepest respect.

A view of building's east elevation.
A view of the building’s east elevation.

The past 15 years have seen major investments in new Quebec libraries and renovations. Beyond its social contribution, this has resulted in a remarkable series of architectural landmarks. Julie Bélanger, an architect with Quebec City’s building department, explains that the BMC is part of an evolution of libraries from book depositories to social centres. In these new libraries, dusty tomes, silence and weight have stepped aside to make way for flows of people, social relations and information. Bélanger calls this “a small revolution,” but a deeply significant one. “They are public places,” adds project director Mylène Gauthier, “one of the last refuges of free gathering.”

The BMC is an excellent example of how architecture can support these new needs in a tangible, meaningful way. Judging by the success of the library, the City seems to be on track with its vision of creating “third places” between home and work. “People recognize themselves in the sobriety of the place,” offers Julie Michaud, former director of libraries for the district. The highest increase in visitors has been with children and adolescents, a meaningful nod to the library’s namesake Monique Corriveau, a local author renowned for her children’s stories.

New and restored skylights provide glowing light to a second-floor magazine area.
New and restored skylights provide glowing light to a second-floor magazine area.

It is fitting that the architecture of the BMC achieves a luminous presence respectful of both its past and future vocations. When Hanganu says that, as architects, they were guests in his space (des invités dans son espace), it is ambiguous whether he is referring to the transcendent temple of a divinity—or to the work of its architect, Jean-Marie Roy, a respected colleague and dear friend, who sadly passed away before he could see Hanganu’s plans for the library.

Roy completed the Saint-Denis Church in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council, a turning point for the Catholic Church in modernizing its doctrine and practice. The church’s construction also coincided with Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which reinforced the separation of church and state. Saint-Denis is emblematic of this modern context, with a column-free open plan and less hierarchical arrangement than its predecessors (a multipurpose room is accessed directly from the choir). Nowhere are the church’s modern expressive qualities more evident than in its spectacular roof: a swooping saddle supported by laminated wood rafters, rising into a spire that resembles two hands pressed against each other.

A boldly geometric steeple and roof mark the building's place in Sainte-Foy, west of downtown Quebec City.
A boldly geometric steeple and roof mark the building’s place in Sainte-Foy, west of downtown Quebec City.

When Hanganu in consortium with Côté Leahy Cardas Architectes began the library conversion in 2010, the team aimed to retain as much of the original building as possible, out of respect for the architecture and its designer. As project architect Sébastien Laberge explains, they initially tried to place the majority of the program underground. However, structural issues pushed the project in a different direction: to make room for structures sufficiently robust to support the anticipated loads, the old presbytery and multipurpose room behind the sanctuary were demolished.

A spiral stair ascends to a loft-like reading lounge.
A spiral stair ascends to a loft-like reading lounge.

The spire still marks the presence of a major gathering place, drawing the eye up through the eclectic mix of buildings that punctuate low-density Route de l’église. Both the spire and roof were entirely stripped and reclad with reflective Galvalume arranged à la Canadienne (with overlapping sheets placed at 45-degree angles). The brightness of the roof against the sky, whether overcast or clear, is one of the new library’s most striking features. Gauthier appreciates the choice of a material that scintillates. “The gesture gave the building its nobility back, and allowed us to read the intention of the original architect unhindered,” she says.

Insulation was added to the outside, while inside, the roof was stripped of its acoustic tiles to reveal regular wood lathe painted completely white. Where the roof’s rafters meet the exterior wall, the architects devised a glass soffit that increases the legibility of the whole. They also restored two original details that had been covered: a series of skylights down the western crest of the roof, and a cleverly integrated window on the street-facing side of the spire. The renewed roof offers a unifying envelope, inside and out, as well as a clear gesture of architectural respect.

The library's soaring space welcomes visitors.
The library’s soaring space welcomes visitors.

The library is arranged as a programmatic sequence that follows the original footprint of the church, unfolding from east to west. Highly public areas (including the café, circulation desk and periodicals) are located near the front, under the billowing roof. The architects insisted on keeping the street entrance in order to respect the main axis of the original complex. The entry area is carefully landscaped as an extension of the library to the sidewalk, and is marked by an articulated box housing a fire exit—the only volume to break the unity of the original church on the streetscape, announcing its new vocation.

The middle section of the library, situated at the junction between old and new volumes, is designated for vertical circulation and an atrium open to all levels. A site-specific sculpture by artist Claudie Gagnon has been integrated into the back wall of the choir, and an elegant spiral staircase leads up to a pulpit-like reading area nicknamed “paradise” that, as Laberge explains, refers to the highest accessible point of a theatre.

The rear part of the library is a near-rectangular glass-box addition, housing an adult section and meeting rooms on the top floor, children’s areas at ground level, and more stacks along with a multipurpose room on the lowest level which opens out to an outdoor sunken auditorium. In both the middle and rear sections of the library, the architects integrated additional skylights that lighten the new volumes and further support their concept of linking zenithal light to knowledge and learning.

Near the entrance, a sculpted black box contains an office for sorting books.
Near the entrance, a sculpted black box contains an office for sorting books.

When first entering the library, the expanse of space is striking. Laberge recalls that an early question the team asked itself was: “what to do with such spatial luxury?” At the lowest point of the saddle, the roof is 10 metres tall, and it stands over 20 metres high at its pinnacle. In spite of these generous dimensions, the spatial disposition of the project rarely offers a complete view of the whole, but rather favours tantalizing glimpses foreshadowing further developments in the spatial sequence. The roof serves to unify and mark continuity over discrete elements that, as Hanganu points out, “relate to the plan of the old complex, but are never symmetrical to each other or to the main axis of the nave.”

This subtle spatial play ties the project’s aesthetics to previous works by Hanganu. In the completed library, a series of carefully designed elements create delineated zones, distinct enough from each other to be special, but also intentionally overlapping and flowing into each other. As such, they encourage a flexible movement of people and ideas. The intangible flow of thoughts is irrevocably tied to the common world of things. The architecture subtly reorganizes the way we interact with information in space, and suggests new kinds of social relations that may emerge as a result. The library’s zones and discrete elements, like the library’s users, are multiple voices under an extraordinary light, and a roof that unites them together with purpose.

A central atrium links the library's heritage core and a jewel-box addition.
A central atrium links the library’s heritage core and a jewel-box addition.

“We have sacred structures that were constructed because our society had other values, other ambitions,” says Hanganu. “You can do things with these structures that are contemporary—but you can never forget where you are. These are sacred spaces. They house something that can be transformed by our society into other virtues, regardless of whether you are religious or not. The coupling of knowledge with sacred light is beneficial to all.” CA

Thomas-Bernard Kenniff holds a PhD in Architectural History and Theory from the Bartlett School of Architecture and a professional M.Arch from the University of Waterloo. He currently teaches at the Université de Montréal and Carleton University.

Client Ville de Québec—Arrondissement Sainte-Foy—Sillery—Cap-Rouge | Architect Team Dan Hanganu architectes—Dan S. Hanganu, Gilles Prud’homme, Sébastien Laberge, Olivier Grenier, Anne-Catherine Richard, Marc Despaties, Audrey Labonté, Teodora Stefanova, Simon Barrette. Côté Leahy Cardas architectes—Diana Cardas, Jacques Côté, Pascal Gobeil, Martin Girard, Marie-Andrée Goyette. | Structural/Mechanical/Electrical BPR | Landscape Dan Hanganu Architectes and Côté Lealhy Cardas Architectes | Interiors Dan Hanganu Architectes and Côté Lealhy Cardas Architectes | Contractor Pomerleau | Acoustics Audiofax | Artist Claudie Gagnon | Area 4,400 m2 | Budget $14.7 M | Completion  November 2013