Mario Saia: Saia Barbarese Topouzanov Architectes

The 2007 RAIC Gold Medal has been awarded to Montreal architect Mario Saia of Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes (SBTA). The Gold Medal is awarded in recognition of those who have made a significant contribution to Canadian architecture and recognizes an individual whose personal and professional work has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the practice of architectural excellence, research and education. Born in Montreal, Saia earned his degree in architecture at the Universit de Montral in 1963. With a bursary from American Standard (1963) and a Commonwealth Bursary (1964-1965), he continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland before apprenticing for a year in Copenhagen. Shortly after returning to Montreal, Saia co-founded his own firm in 1968 with Dino Barbarese. In 2002, Vladimir Topouzanov became the third director in the 25-person office which has since become known as Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes.

Perhaps not so well known outside of the Montreal architectural community, Saia’s buildings are designed with a sensitive eye for detail and clarity. Even from his earliest works, the buildings employ an off-the-shelf material palette and demonstrate a knack for imparting healthy social environments into even the simplest of programmatic challenges. As a result, the architectural experience of his buildings–from the modest to the more elaborate commissions–are enriched. This can be seen in earlier works such as the Johnson and Johnson Headquarters (1984) in Montreal, the Saint-Jerome Professional Sports Centre (1994) in Saint-Jerome, Quebec and the Little Burgundy Sports Centre (1997) in Montreal. With these projects, Saia’s material juxtapositions have helped him develop a carefully edited architectural language that clearly defines spatial hierarchies while maximizing small budgets. It was projects like Little Burgundy, along with other sports facilities designed and built throughout Quebec during the 1990s that provided Saia and his team with the necessary design discipline and experience to enable them to respond with greater architectural confidence as their commissions grew in complexity and budget. During the past decade, SBTA’s more recent university projects–such as their Lassonde (2005) and Dansereau (2006) Pavilions–have benefited from experiences gained during the relatively slower economic period of the 1990s when they were forced to create a lot of architecture out of small budgets. Throughout his career, Saia’s design approach and clarity of architectural concept begins with pure and simple geometries which are then anchored with strong axes, rhythms and contrasts. His designs seek to create both formal and informal social spaces that celebrate what he considers to be “the living network of its functions”–whether they are university buildings (as in the Pavillon Lassonde), or civic buildings (like the Palais des congrs).

As project architect and principal designer, Saia has been continually recognized with numerous architectural awards including two Governor General’s Medals in Architecture, 13 Awards of Excellence from l’Ordre des architectes du Qubec, a Home of the Year Award from the now defunct Architecture magazine, the HUE International Award for use of colour, and the Pan-American Wood Award for the use of wood in architecture. Saia won a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence and an Award of Merit in 1985 and 2003, respectively.

Saia is considered an invaluable mentor for many emerging architects across Quebec. Over the lifespan of SBTA, architects with a wide variety of cultural and academic backgrounds have made Saia’s office their professional starting point–if not their long-term career goal. Of the many people who have worked for SBTA, several have left to form their own offices such as Saucier + Perrotte and Atelier TAG. Throughout his own career, Saia has been called upon to serve on numerous juries and has taught at both the Universit de Montral and McGill University, where he has acted as tutor, studio head, associate professor, and invited critic. Saia served on the Comit consultatif de Montral pour la protection des biens culturels from 1989 to 2004, and since then has been a member of the new design review committee for the City of Montreal.

Large-scale planning initiatives are also a strong part of Saia’s work. His master plan for the Universit du Qubec Montral (UQAM) campus (1991 onwards) played heavily upon the notion of a traditional campus, while allowing him to develop a language of strong iconographic imagery. For his UQAM campus buildings, Saia developed the idea of a continuous campus green space, manifested through gardens and courtyard enclosures that evolved with each subsequent project for the campus. In terms of sustainable design, the science complex named in honour of the environmental science teacher and researcher Pierre Dansereau heavily influenced Saia’s desire to achieve LEED status. In this project, Saia preserved the existing buildings whenever possible, rehabilitating a vacant city lot, harvesting rainwater for toilets and gardening, supplying fresh air to the laboratories and maximizing natural daylight. His Biological Sciences Pavilion volumetrically acknowledges its context while reinforcing a distinct sense of “campus.” As a component of the UQAM Science Complex, this pavilion is principally a teaching and research facility and includes a significant research/business incubator component. Comprising the final building that effectively closes the perimeter of the campus, the large mass of the structure is balanced by a garden courtyard hollowed out in the centre of the project.

Another building that interacts with the city beyond the UQAM campus is the Pavillon Tluq for distance learning and media broadcasting. The building is a virtual university of 40 professors, whose innovative work in internet training serves as the heart of the university’s distance education program. The curtain effect along the street’s edge is further emphasized by a dot pattern silk-screened onto the glass that ranges from fully transparent to 100-percent opacity, creating an illusion of depth for passersby.

Inspired by steep topography and panoramic views, the concept for the new Pavillon Lassonde (see CA, November 2006) reinforces both internally and externally the built and natural environments while engaging the notion of campus for the Faculty of Engineering. The large building is integrated into its topography and is characterized by two immense multi-storey canyons, manifesting itself into an internal landscape–a feature that is particularly relevant and pragmatic given the context of Montreal’s harsh winter climate. Classrooms are situated at the lower levels, with offices and laboratories in the middle, and the more tranquil library, reading rooms, and terraces surfacing at the top.

Significant urban projects beyond the academic sphere that have been completed over the past decade include the Palais des congrs de Montral (2003) (see CA, October 2003). Hovering above the urban scar created by the Ville-Marie Expressway in the early 1970s, the expansion to the convention centre seeks to reconnect Old Montreal to the rest of the city. Saia’s response to the design challenge was to animate the convention centre with a multi-coloured glass faade as a means of healing the damage caused by the expressway, thus creating a node of connection in the city.

Saia has also demonstrated a history of producing some very strong examples of residential architecture. One of the more iconic houses to be published in Canada over the past five years is the Maison Goulet (see CA, November 2004). The archetypal gabled home sits on top of a stone base, establishing a datum for the walls while also deflecting the prevailing winds, especially during the winter. With an interior lined with fir plywood, the project has taken a modest materials palette and elevated the rustic aesthetic to minimalist quietude.

In addition to designing many private dwellings, Saia and SBTA have been committed
to designing several of Montreal’s affordable housing projects. Saia’s much-lauded 2003 master plan for Benny Farm enabled the construction of 535 affordable housing units (40% of which comprised subsidized non-profit units), a community and sports centre, a day-care centre, a health and local social services centre, and a community garden. The use of geothermal and solar heating helped the first phase of the project win the Holcim Foundation’s North American Gold Award. For the Benny Farm Housing Complex, Saia’s primary objectives included the provision of comfortable units for the complex’s aging residents, most of whom are veterans of Canada’s armed forces. The sobriety of the brick used throughout the project provides visual coherence to the neighbourhood, whereas the faades flanking the interior courtyard are comprised of anthracite stucco walls and which are enlivened with green polka dots on the otherwise clear glass guardrails.

The determined and focused career of Mario Saia is represented here by a selection of very intricate and clearly articulated projects. The portfolio of buildings produced by SBTA have in no uncertain terms contributed to the betterment of Montreal, while educating and influencing nearly two generations of Quebec architects.

Jury Comments:

Of the slate of significant and literate architects in Canada, there is little doubt that Mario Saia is the most provocative one. His buildings depart from the realm of the familiar, the comfortable, and the conservative. He valiantly pushes the frontiers of conventional design and incites both users and passersby to reflect on the meaning and purpose of architecture, of city planning, and of milieu. His architecture speaks of the city, of the present time, and of social reality. His buildings express a critical view with respect to the cultural and physical circumstances of context–be it the city, the suburbs, or the untamed landscape, as is reflected in the Palais des congrs de Montral, the cole Polytechnique and the Maison Goulet in the Laurentian mountains. His office has spawned some of the most interesting architects in Canada: Gilles Saucier, Andr Perrotte, Hal Ingberg, Vladimir Topouzanov, and others.–Adrian Sheppard, FRAIC

I am struck by the breadth and depth of the work and by the person of Mario Saia. He has consistently addressed context with concern and innovation, resulting in a body of work that is diverse, creative and meaningful. Through his lifelong passion for architecture, Mario Saia–architect, researcher, community activist, educator, critic and juror–has earned his place in the history of Canadian architecture.–Bill Chomik, PP/FRAIC