Magic Lanterns

Shanghai Montreal Garden Multimedia Showcase Pavilion, Shanghai, China

First Nations Pavilion, Botanical Garden, Montreal, Quebec

Saucier + Perrotte architectes

The desire to make connections seems to mark our epoch. Philosopher John Rajchman, in an incisive analysis of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, states that “we must always make connections, since they are not already given.” He adds, “in other words, to make connections one needs not knowledge, certainty, or even ontology, but rather a trust that something may come out, though one is not yet completely sure what” (see his The Deleuze Connections, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

Saucier + Perrotte architectes’ Shanghai Montreal Garden Multimedia Showcase Pavilion, completed in 2000, and the First Nations Pavilion in the Botanical Garden of Montreal, completed in 2001, are excellent representatives of a current preoccupation with buildings that allow the making of connections with personal narratives and with history, as these ultimately become inscribed in or elicited by the topography and the landscape. This practice might well be named syndesis (not to be confused with synthesis) from the Greek, which is a process dictated by the urge to bind together.

It may be helpful to begin the critical discussion of the two buildings by Saucier + Perrotte with a succinct digression on the word pavilion, whose mere mention evokes familiar images. Its etymology unveils particular and fascinating traits that seem to help define a building type, ubiquitous yet highly neglected in most critical histories of architecture. The word pavilion has its origins in Latin–papilio = butterfly and field tent–with subsequent versions and transformation into medieval Romance languages and into English–pabellon, padiglione, pavillon, and pavilion in Spanish, Italian, French, and English respectively.

The architectural origin of the pavilion can be traced back to Roman times when light and emblematic tents were destined for use by dignitaries and warriors on battlefields and in jousting tournaments. Throughout history, pavilions have been built to fulfill a variety of simple functions. These have ranged from the basic sheltering from elements, to providing the setting for social gathering, for contemplation and retreat, and ultimately to function as representational devices akin to standards such as banners or flags.

In more recent history, the simple concept of the pavilion has often turned into a complex architectural experiment; closer, for instance, to a folly, as is the case with John Nash’s famous Royal Pavilion at Brighton, UK. Originally built at the end of the 18th century, it was redesigned by the prolific architect for the Prince Regent in the first quarter of the 19th century. But it is undoubtedly the emergence of the World’s Fairs in the second part of the 19th century that boosted the building of pavilions. The modern pavilion adapted well to its new symbolic role, becoming an important locus for modern architects to explore their concepts and theories and to express, translate, and formally test their design ideas. This is what Saucier + Perrotte set out to do in their two pavilions, which have become true watersheds in the firm’s career. In these works the architects have continued the tradition of eminent predecessors, such as Konstantin Melnikov’s controversial proposal for a representative plywood pavilion for the USSR, and Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, both for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Dcoratifs in Paris. Particularly relevant is Mies van de Rohe’s emblematic Barcelona Pavilion built for the International Exposition of 1929. (Mies’s pavilion stood for only six months and was subsequently dismantled. It became, nonetheless, the ghost paradigm of 20th century architecture just on the basis of a few published photographs and inaccurate drawings until its construction in 1985-86.) From the second half of the 20th century one recalls Le Corbusier’s lesser known Heidi Weber Pavilion in Zurich completed in 1965, a year after the architect’s death, and the enigmatic E,D,E,N pavilion for the Hotel Eden in Rheinfelden, Switzerland (1986-87) by Herzog & de Meuron. The common denominator among all these examples, including Saucier + Perrotte’s works, is their architects’ deliberate effort to go beyond the status quo of architectural thinking and production.

It is important to point out here the timeliness of Saucier + Perrotte’s two buildings, which preceded, in the case of the Shanghai Pavilion, and coincided, in the case of the First Nations Pavilion, with the efforts of the Serpentine Gallery in London to provide a unique showcase for contemporary architectural practice. Since 2000 the Serpentine has annually commissioned architects of worldwide acclaim to design a Pavilion for its lawn. So far the commissions have included Zaha Hadid (2000), Daniel Libeskind with Arup (2001), and Toyo Ito (2002). The winner of this year’s commission is 96-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Unlike the Serpentine commissions, which until now seem to have concentrated on formal and structural manipulations, Saucier + Perrotte’s more modest interventions in Shanghai and Montreal represent a true effort to establish reciprocal connections between the pavilions and their surrounding landscapes. These concerns underscore the relevance of the site topography and particularly, as Gilles Saucier points out, “architecture’s transgression of the horizon around its 360 degrees,” which resonate in many of the firm’s projects but particularly in those realized after the completion of the two pavilions.

The programs for both pavilions are similar and both call for imaginative displays of particular themes. Both pavilions are sited in unique landscapes, the Pudong Park and the Botanical Garden, in Shanghai and Montreal respectively. While the Shanghai Pavilion serves to promote the City of Montreal–particularly its leading role in communication technologies–the Montreal Pavilion highlights and celebrates the first inhabitants of North America, their traditions and differences.

Corporal displacement and its experiential implications are undoubtedly the most significant guiding intentions behind the design of both pavilions, which the architects ultimately resolve through the design of a pathway in concert with the surrounding topography. Movement and experience along its two directions is emphasized by the deliberate use of contrasting architectural forms, plant materials, and by topographic manipulation. The perfect precedent for this gesture is Greek architect Dimitris Pikinonis’s famous design for the Sacred Panathenaic Path in Athens, which connects the Agora with the Acropolis.

In the Shanghai Pavilion, the emphasis of the installations resides in a technologically oriented showcase for the promotion of the city of Montreal. This is echoed in the general treatment of the architectural envelope, which consists of a sophisticated glass curtain wall system that embodies state of the art technology used in the diffusion of a multimedia show. The main exhibition area is subordinated to open gathering spaces, all of them widely accessible from the exterior garden. The building consists of two similar volumes–think of two immense flickering cubes–separated by a narrow slit that houses an open stair-bridge. The entire complex stretches diagonally, in an X formation, over a body of water, allowing both the stair bridge and the volumes to connect the shores. The volumes that evoke gigantic lanterns–a typical feature of Chinese gardens–act as gates that mark the metaphorical passage between city and culture as well as city and nature. At night the iridescent presence of the two volumes enact the lantern metaphor thanks to the architect’s whimsical and skilful play with opacity and transparency.

In the First Nations Pavilion, which received a much coveted Governor General’s Medal in 2002–the fourth in Saucier + Perrotte’s highly recognized career–the path reappears reaffirming, this time, the concept o
f museum within a garden. Here, building and path become one, as the path–symbolized by the undulating canopy in thin concrete–metaphorically becomes the roof which shelters the cultural memory of the place.

Both narratives clearly demonstrate that architecture, when thoughtfully set against its topographical context, can elicit alluring narratives and metaphorical references provided, however, that they are tempered with a rigorous choice and control of materials and more importantly an openness to the process of differentiation on which architecture rests. This combination has become one of the trademarks of the Montreal architects whose gaze on their completed work involves a constantly renewed reading of the landscape, defined by the superimposition of references and connections: the horizon, the ground, the sky and the water lines. These syndetic aspects hold the promise of more memorable buildings from Saucier and Perrotte in the near future.

Ricardo L. Castro, MRAIC is an associate professor of architecture at the McGill University School of Architecture in Montreal.

1.exterior exhibition

2.interior terrace



6.interior exhibition



9.conference room

10.multimedia showcase

Shanghai Montreal Garden Multimedia Showcase Pavilion

Client: City of Montreal

Architect team: Gilles Saucier, Andr Perrotte, Yves Bouchard, Robert D’Errico, Julie Lafrenire, Jean-Franois Laga, Jean-Olivier Nadeau

Structural/Mechanical/Electrical: Dessau Soprin

Landscape: Services des parcs, City of Montreal; Claude Cormier architecte paysagiste

Planner: Jean Drapeau

Area: 1,100 m2

Budget: $3.5 million

Completion: July 2000

Photography: Andr Perrotte, Gilles Saucier


2.exterior courtyard

3.interior exhibition

4.meeting room

5.exterior exhibition


First Nations Pavilion

Client: Botanical Garden of Montreal

Architect team: Gilles Saucier, Andr Perrotte, Anna Bendix, Maxime-Alexis Frappier, Christian Hbert, Jean-Franois Laga, Sergio Morales

Structural/Mechanical/Electrical: Genivar

Landscape: Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui et associs

Displays: Cultura-DES

Area: 415 m2

Budget: $2.75 million

Completion: Fall 2001

Photography: Marc Cramer