Literary Layers

Project Grande Bibliothque, Montreal, Quebec

Architect Patkau Architects/Croft Pelletier Architectes/Menks Shooner Dagenais Architectes Associes

Text Michael Carroll

Photos James Dow, Bernard Fougres

As a resident of Montreal’s Quartier Latin neighbourhood, I have observed all of the phases of the Grande Bibliothque’s development–from the 2000 Montreal Biennale’s exhibition of the competition held in the basement of the derelict roller derby building that once inhabited the site–to its opening in April, 2005. During its three-year construction period, I delighted in the heroic concrete formwork involved in creating this massive structure that was subsequently skinned in a metal shell and finally shrouded in over 6,000 glass tiles. After being open for several months, on a typical weekend it’s hard to find a place to read with the record-breaking numbers of visitors that average around 12,000 a day–a number up sharply from the 8,000 people (Seattle Public Library’s daily count) that officials had projected–never underestimate people’s thirst for books and the unconscious residual effect of well-considered, understated architecture.

In a recent walk-through of the Grande Bibliothque with architect Patricia Patkau, and later at her lecture at McGill University’s School of Architecture, she explained the intricacies of the firm’s design process. Unlike a lot of contemporary form-driven practices, the work of Patkau Architects is primarily an introverted practice, focused on initial architectural gestures that are essentially a “record of forces” present just beneath the surface of things, and which are embedded within the seemingly banal limitations of program, site and budget. It is through the critical re-situating and re-seeing of these forces where architecture, as posited by Patkau, holds its most powerful potential to create futures rich with possibility.

Right from the start, the Patkaus’ initial reading of the situation given Montreal’s cold winter climate and the Bibliothque’s tight budget (about one-third less than Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library) limited any overt architectural gymnastics. The basic result is the Grande Bibliothque’s present manifestation as an elongated six-storey metal box that houses a concrete warehouse measuring roughly 45 metres wide by 150 metres long.

As I continue my tour with Patkau, she articulates her initial concern of dealing with this potentially “dead lump of a form”–evident in some of the library’s institutional and commercial neighbours–heavy, brick-faced buildings that essentially turn their backs to the street and to each other. Probably, Patkau Architects’ greatest contribution to the Grande Bibliothque design is their transformation of the potentially hermetic program of a library and the generic form of a box into a seemingly light and layered assemblage of materials and spaces that works as a library, a cultural destination and a finely turned urban intervention.

As a library, the Grande Bibliothque is actually two if not three libraries all in one–the Children’s Library, the General Lending Library, and the National Library. The Children’s Library is located at south end of the building, away from the “quiet-only zones” of the building near the entry, one level below grade. It fronts a generous landscaped light well that provides daylight, a sliver of sun, and views to the adjacent Berri-UQAM metro station. In a surreal moment, as one ascends the glass-lined escalator from the metro to the library’s ground floor–one actually passes through the Children’s Library and catches a glimpse of its mysterious semi-subterranean condition.

Diagrammatically speaking, the General Lending Library and the National Library are two large-scale rooms lined with slatted maple screens that demonstrate very different strategies for library design. Within the General Lending Room, books are placed in the middle of the space with the main reading zones, which consist of terraced study desks and long lounges relegated to the plan’s edges in order to gain full advantage of natural light and views of the neighbourhood. Users can navigate the space vertically through a central bank of elevators and stairs, or they can meander through the library’s various levels via its perimeter circulation zone–what Patkau kindly calls the “goat path.” In contrast, the National Reading Room, located at the northern end of the site, is more traditional. Its books–all related to Qubcoise culture–are located on the perimeter and the main reading room, whose dramatic cubic volume is placed in the centre. The wood theme of both rooms is complemented by plywood desks equipped with pencil slots and integrated green glass reading lamps designed by the renowned Canadian industrial designer Michel Dallaire.

Because of the changing nature of emerging information technologies, the library in general is designed as a warehouse with its ducting and conduits housed in raised floors that allows flexibility over time. The present spatial layout demonstrates a fluid relationship between machines, books and reading, rather than a strict categorization of space. The result is a kind of layered immediacy, which means a library user can browse the stacks, photocopy, surf the net and read within any one zone of the library. However, despite the design intention to limit difference, the result is not a generic, de-territorized space but a series of highly differentiated spaces with subtle yet contrasting characters.

Libraries have a potentially introverted aspect implicit in their “genetic makeup.” However, the Grande Bibliothque–given la scne Qubcoise–touts itself as not only a centre for information services but also a place of culture. As a response to this, Patkau Architects capitalized on every aspect of the program that could be placed outside the controlled zones of the reading rooms to give the library a more public face and increase its cultural content. Along the library’s 115-metre-long concourse that runs parallel to rue Berri, a variety of public spaces can be directly accessed, including a small bookstore, an exhibition area, a lecture theatre, meeting rooms, and a street-facing caf that has yet to be implemented. However, one of the project’s more explicit cultural features, an exterior amphitheatre for the city’s many summer festivals on the north side of the complex, was unfortunately axed during the project’s lengthy revision period.

As a basic box, the Grande Bibliothque is not a bad one. Rooted to its site, it attempts to expand into the plane of the city and the metro through connections to both the immediate and extended context of the site. Any heaviness in its form is ameliorated with the lightness of the translucent glacial green glass tiles that clad the building and give it a refreshing fragility. As well, some exterior walls are cranked slightly to soften its form, and along rue Berri, the faade basically delaminates to reveal the depth of the Bibliothque’s architectural layers. Its translucent glass tile exterior hovering in front of the metal-clad wall gives way to long expanses of transparent glass curtain wall that reveals, especially at night, a multi-storey slatted maple screen that in turn frames a vertical bank of stairs and elevators–whose own internal mechanisms are exposed to add to the visual complexity of the whole architectural composition. Even along the uncompromisingly flat avenue Savoie faade that stretches 150 metres, the exterior glass panels stop and start to reveal punched windows, elongated ribbons of glass and at street level, a series of second-hand bookshops (with retractable canopies) and display vitrines that hopefully will eventually blossom and animate this very colourful Montreal laneway.

The Grande Bibliothque from both inside and outside, in plan and section, is a finely calibrated, layered construction that creates zones of compression and expansion that work at both the micro and macro level. Whet
her it is the construction details or the overall spatial planning, a consistent strategy seems embedded in every aspect of the design. The result is a highly systematic building with a nuanced design sensibility that is not about making a loud architectural statement up front. The strength of the Bibliothque’s considered design is that it remains background–a silent, smooth infrastructure to support the myriad of tasks at hand–in the most delightful way possible.

Michael Carroll is an adjunct professor at McGill University, a cofounder of atelier BUILD, and a recipient of the 2004 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture.

Client Bibliotheque Et Archives Nationales Du Quebec

Architect Team Patkau Architects: Laura Arpiainen, Greg Boothroyd, Michael Cunningham, Michael Elkan, Samantha Hayes, John Patkau, Patricia Patkau, Peter Suter, Craig Simms, Nick Sully. Croft Pelletier Architectes: Marie-Chantal Croft, Eric Pelletier, Jean Chretien, Benoit Ruelland, Michel Thompson, Olivier Grenier, Cedeanne Simard, Remi Hovington Jr. Menkes Shooner Dagenais: Yves Dagenais, Gaetan Roy, Stephan Chevalier, Yvon Lachance, Luc Doucet, Dominique Dumais, Catherine Belanger, Guillaume Delorimier, Luc Montpetit, Mana Hemami, Andrea Macelwee, Alex Parmentier, Christine Giguere, Alain Boudrias, Harvens Piou.

Consulting Architect Gilles Guite Architecte

Architectural Support Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Et Associes Architectes

Structural Regroupement Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Limitee / Les Consultants Geniplus Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical Regroupement Bouthillette & Associes Inc. / Groupe Hba Experts-Conseils Inc.

Lighting Consultant Nbbj

Acoustic Consultant Legault Davidson

Theatre Consultant Scenoplus

Elevator Consultant Kja Inc.

Building Envelope Consultant Patenaude Consultants Inc.

Code Consultant Technorm Inc.

Landscape Scheme Consultants

Builder Herve Pomerleau Inc.

Area 33,000 M2

Budget $97.6 M

Completion April 2005