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Milky Ways: Bibliothèque de Drummondville, Drummondville, Québec

A striking Quebec library is enriched by references to local history and context.

PROJECT Bibliothèque de Drummondville, Drummondville, Québec

ARCHITECTS Chevalier Morales in consortium with DMA architectes

TEXT Odile Hénault

PHOTOS Doublespace Photography, unless otherwise noted

A sculptural staircase is at the center of the library. The swirling forms are inspired by the city’s hydroelectric turbines, which have been in use since 1919. Photo by Adrian Wiliams

Some architects are obsessed with materials, others with geometry, others still with colour (or the lack of it). Stephan Chevalier and Sergio Morales, of Chevalier Morales, are obviously passionate about all three—but also, and above all, about stairs. Stepping into the firm’s latest library, completed with DMA architectes, one is immediately struck by—and attracted to—a set of swirling stairs leading to a mid-level landing, a prelude to two more helicoidal sculptures aiming for the upper level.

Twin stairs reach a landing, then divide again to ascend to the upper level. Photo by doublespace photography

As one starts wandering about, other steps appear, of the bleacher style that is often (perhaps too often) used in contemporary libraries. In Drummondville, however, they acquire extra meaning, as the upper flight of bleachers is perfectly positioned to watch over the skating rink just outside the building. In this city of 75,000—which boasts more square feet of ice per person than any other Québec town—exterior rinks are sacrosanct. Chevalier Morales latched on to the idea of creating a visual link between reading and skating, and made the rink an essential component of the project. They even went a step further, introducing a heat exchange loop linking the rink’s compressors and the library’s heating system.

It’s one of a series of subtle but important local references that are woven throughout this project. The library itself is positioned to help restructure nearby Lindsay Street, one of the city’s main avenues, which has gradually lost its character over the last decades. And although this unusual floating object with its curvilinear footprint may seem out of place in the rather bland surrounding streetscape, the library has become a major destination. People come in and out, from various directions, and use the 5,750-square-metre building very much as a “third space”—a concept introduced in 1989 by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe cafés, community centres and other informal hangouts.1

The ground floor layout is defined by an elongated rectangular space, centered on the dramatic set of swirling stairs. Looking east is an exterior court, adjacent to an interior café—which also sells hemp-based health and beauty products, a sign of the times. To the west is a second exterior court and a multipurpose room. The library staff offices and the local historical society occupy roughly a third of the floor, on the southern side. Parents with young children and toddlers are directed towards a section to the north, which is connected via the bleacher-style steps to the upper-level teen area.

A pair of courtyards bring greenery and light to the ground floor. Photo by doublespace photography

The second floor also houses adult reading areas, a multimedia zone, municipal offices and a reference section dedicated to genealogy. Printed books abound in this library: stacks are everywhere. They’re white, of course, to reduce their visual impact. “We don’t often use colour,” said Stephan Chevalier in a 2018 interview. “All is white, transparent, translucent.”2 Natural light enters the building from all directions, including from skylights located above narrow oval slits in the ceiling. Interior spaces are primarily white. When wood is used, either as stair cladding or flooring, it is a pale blond. The feeling is one of airiness.

Curved glass corners give the library a fluid form and gentle, floating presence on its site. Photo by Adrian Williams

Chevalier Morales’ minimalist palette was partly inspired by Portuguese author José Saramago’s 1995 novel, Blindness, from which the office extracted the idea of an all-pervasive whiteness as they entered their first architectural competition, in 2008. Although their design for a new Montreal planetarium did not win, it did attract attention to their creativity, their rigour, and their willingness to take risks, such as by challenging the given program. Over a subsequent six-year period, from 2011 to 2017, the firm participated in several competitions and was selected to build four libraries. These included the Maison de la littérature, a delicate intervention in the oldest part of Québec City. The renovated building with its thoughtful contemporary addition opened its doors in 2015 and received a Governor General’s Medal in 2018 (see CA, June 2016 and May 2018). The other three libraries—two in Montreal and the latest one in Drummondville—are perhaps less prestigious, but they clearly show how the firm has developed and refined its concepts over time.

Above a set of elliptical openings, skylights bring natural light deep into the core of the library. Photo by doublespace photography

“Our projects are all different, but there is a common thread weaving its way through each of them,” says Chevalier.”3 This “thread” becomes obvious when comparing the Saul-Bellow Library (2011-2015), to the Pierrefonds Library (2012-2018), and finally to the Drummondville Library (2014-2017). Ideas of formal vocabulary and space planning, perceptible in the relatively low-key Saul-Bellow addition, lead quite logically to the Pierrefonds expansion. With Drummondville—the office’s first freestanding library project—Chevalier Morales was finally able to fully explore the freedom provided by an open-ended site. The volume pulls in and out according to its orientation and to the functions within. Cantilevers provide protection from rain and snow, while sunlight is controlled through the materiality of the façade. These decisions achieve sustainability beyond the prescriptions of LEED.

The building’s envelope is made of translucent ceramic frit glass where the walls are solid, and clear glass where there are views to the outside. The effect is particularly striking at the corners, where the glass panels curve. Despite initial appearances of a transparent volume, close to two- thirds of the exterior walls are solid; steel plates are placed behind the glass envelope, over insulation, giving the façades a slight bluish tinge.

The milky-white building envelope is a nod to the area’s industrial heritage and long-lasting memories of pale-blue slag from steel production. Photo by doublespace photography

This move is a nod to Drummondville’s early steel industry, made possible by the Saint-François River’s dramatic drop as it meanders through what is now downtown. The pale blue-coloured slag from the smelting process was used at the time as fill material for roads. The French word for it (laitier de fonte) evokes the whiteness of milk (lait)—the very colour Chevalier Morales is constantly seeking.

Perhaps one of building’s most striking historical references is the inspiration for the exuberant stairs at the heart of the building. The architects point to the hydroelectric turbines of the power plant along the river, opened in 1919 and still in use today.

This multiplicity of layers—historical, contextual, technical and symbolic—is what makes Chevalier Morales’ work so interesting. Their creative process is fed by a constant search for clues in the physical world and the history books, as well as in works of literature. The net result, in the case of the Drummondville Municipal Library, is a highly poetic work, infused with a rich narrative referring to the city’s past.

The library’s collections include print and digital media, set on bespoke shelving. Photo by doublespace photography

1 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. New York : Paragon House, 1989.

2 Louis Destombes, Traductions constructives du projet d’architecture. Théoriser le détail à l’ère de la modélisation intégrative (B.I.M.). Université de Montréal [PhD thesis], 2018, p. 682.

3 Destombes, p. 367.

Odile Hénault is a Montreal-based architectural writer and communications consultant.

 

CLIENT Ville de Drummondville | ARCHITECT TEAM Chevalier Morales—Stephan Chevalier, Sergio Morales, Alexandre Massé, Ève Beaumont-Cousineau, Christian Aubin, Christine Giguère. DMA architectes—Céline Leclerc, François Lemoine, Michèle Mallette | STRUCTURAL/MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL  WSP | LANDSCAPE civiliti | INTERIORS Chevalier Morales architectes / DMA architectes | CONTRACTOR Construction Bugère / Construction Michel Gagnon / Construction Bertrand Dionne | ACOUSTICS Octave acoustique | SUSTAINABILITY tribu | A/V Trizart Alliance | PUBLIC ART Marc-Antoine Côté, Pierre Tessier | AREA 5,750 m2 | BUDGET $20.3M | COMPLETION Fall 2017

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