More Than Meets the PHI

PROJECT PHI Centre, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECTS Atelier in Situ in joint venture with Shapiro Wolfe
TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS James Brittain, unless otherwise noted

Montreal is host to some 31 arts centres, including several that consistently attract high-calibre talent to small-scaled spaces. Part performance hall, part art gallery, part party venue, these places assume a wide mandate that allows them to host, say, a cultural history conference in the morning, a pastry-making workshop in the afternoon, and a dance party at night.

Usine C, a jam factory converted by Saucier + Perrotte in 1995, and Darling Foundry, repurposed by Atelier in situ in 2002, were among the first examples of this building type to emerge in the downtown core. In both cases, the designers preserved a raw aesthetic and let the morphology of the existing buildings define their new use: an old pump room becomes a sunken café at the heart of Usine C, while a manufacturing workshop serves as a soaring multi-functional hall at Darling Foundry.

In contrast to these projects, which were designed in a single go, the phased Société des arts technologiques was renovated from a former market by Corriveau, Dionne et Girard in 2005. In its initial incarnation as an electronic arts centre, the building was simply cleaned up and brought to code for holding large-scale events. Subsequent additions have included an immersive theatre dome called Satosphère designed by Luc Laporte in 2010, and the barely one-year-old penthouse FoodLab, which has quickly earned a place at the top of local culinary destination lists. 

Newly opened PHI Centre is arguably the most ambitious of the genre, combining aspects of both the purpose-built and evolving project approaches. Like its predecessors, it’s situated in a former industrial structure–in this case, a handsome pair of stone-clad buildings in Old Montreal, the larger of which was constructed as a store and dry goods warehouse by merchant John Ogilvy in 1861, and the smaller built a year later to manufacture and sell leather boots. The four-storey structures were subsequently used as a fur factory, refitted to manufacture raincoats and then crystal vases, and abandoned for several years before being purchased by Minto property group heiress Phoebe Greenberg.

Greenberg debuted as an art patron in Montreal with the repurposing of another pair of buildings two blocks away. Known as DHC/ART, the not-for-profit galleries opened in 2007 and feature solo shows by high-calibre artists rarely seen in Montreal, such as Christian Marclay, Sophie Calle, and at present, Thomas Demand.

One of Greenberg’s ambitions is to use her properties not only for hosting art but for staging it too. For instance, Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s mock-explosion photo The Everyday was created by planting smoke bombs inside DHC/ART. The interior demolition for PHI Centre was an even more dramatic undertaking. Denis Villeneuve’s 2008 short film Next Floor, depicting an opulent banquet whose guests sit at a table so loaded that it continuously breaks through the floorboards, was filmed at Greenberg’s newly purchased building. The film’s critical acclaim led Greenberg to sharpen the definition for the multi-functional PHI Centre, equipping its two theatres to double as projection rooms. 

Architects Mark Shapiro and Carolle Fleury from Shapiro Wolfe restored and upgraded the historic envelope, while Stéphane Pratte and Annie Lebel of Atelier in situ were tasked with maximizing versatility within the heritage building. The various spaces are united by the restoration of windows complete with wooden mullions, and the retention of interior brick walls and columns made variously from cast iron, wood and steel. To this is added a restrained palette of polished concrete, stainless steel, and glass dividing elements. 

Achieving flexibility is more complex, and Pratte and Lebel’s skill in detailing, developed through the firm’s experience in exhibition and interior design, is evident in their elegantly intuitive systems for changing the use of the two theatres that form the core of the centre.

In the ground-floor Espace A, louvre-like panels lining the side walls smoothly flip from reflective wood to absorptive perforated metal with slight hand pressure. Heftier acoustic panels at the back of the space slide to black out the grand storefront windows during screenings. Perhaps the most impressive transformation occurs at the entry to Espace A: when not in use, a series of pivoting doors are camouflaged as perforated metal panels that close flush to the lobby walls. The doors open into a darkroom-like vestibule lit in red, while further acoustic isolation was achieved by casting the room’s entire interior shell in structural concrete. The original wood floors were employed as formwork and some floorboards were recuperated for repairs on upper levels.

The second-floor Espace B is configured primarily as a small cinema, with seating for up to 85 visitors on removable risers. Around the perimeter, thick and velvety grey floor-to-ceiling curtains block sound and light. When not in use, they slide along a single rail that follows a snail-like curve into a wall cavity, allowing daylight to flood into the south-facing corner room.

A strong connection between the first two floors is established by a skylit central stair, equipped with polished concrete steps and a sharply sculpted stainless steel handrail. However, an even more important link between Espace A and Espace B resides behind the walls: both spaces are fully wired to serve as professional sound stages, controlled from a production suite on the third floor. The needs of artists were front and centre in the layout of what development director Myriam Achard affectionately refers to as “the brain” of the building. Activities from Espace A and Espace B are captured in a generously sized projection and control room, linked to editing suites with broadcast capabilities. A recording studio and percussion-ready sound isolation room allow for supplemental inputs. The artists’ green room adjoins private suites worthy of a boutique hotel, complete with showers for makeup removal and relief after post-production all-nighters.

Topping the building, a white oak terrace offers stunning views of Old Montreal, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Mechanical systems are concealed behind the stairwell, including a transformer since PHI’s needs exceed the capacity of existing infrastructure in the area. Fleury and Shapiro divided the remainder of the surface between a sedum roof and a reflective white roofing membrane. A rainwater collection system provides rooftop irrigation and supplies the toilets with greywater. The architects anticipate that these features, along with their reuse of some 75 percent of the existing building’s walls, floors and roofs, will give the project a chance at achieving LEED Platinum certification when it is evaluated in the coming months. 

While the core of lobby, theatres and rooftop are planned like a smartly tailored suit, the areas that occupy the remainder of the 8,000-square-foot floor plates feel slightly more haphazard. This is partly due to the preservation of floor levels and party walls from the existing twinned buildings, complete with structural quirks such as irregular column grids and materials. It also, perhaps, has to do with the many-faceted ambitions of PHI.

On the ground floor, a front room adorned with the chandelier and rhinoceros head from Next Floor serves as meeting room, lobby extension or lounge. In an interconnecting space next door, plans are underway for a licensed restaurant. Adjacent to the second-floor cinema, a sound-isolated gallery will soon begin to host multimedia exhibi
tions created by resident artists. Offices are tucked down corridors on the second and third floors. Up one more level, accessed by elevator, a long, open-plan gallery was recently used for a corporate press conference. An adjacent room was planned as an overflow gallery space, but is now slated for more offices. This interchangeability in use points to a somewhat generic design approach, in contrast to the specificity of the theatres.

This is not to say that these ancillary spaces are not handsome: outfitted with original wood and iron columns, polished concrete floors and abundant natural light, they offer a combination of character and cleanliness that will make them highly desirable for the event rentals which contribute to PHI’s long-term viability.

While PHI has yet to have an official opening, the arts crowd in Montreal is gradually learning of it through free public programming such as screenings of top TIFF films and artists’ talks co-hosted by DHC. The February lineup includes a roundtable with young Spanish designers that asks, “does place play a role in creativity?” One might discover answers by watching the evolution of PHI Centre itself. CA

Client Phoebe Greenberg
Architect Team Atelier in Situ–Stéphane Pratte, Annie Lebel, Hugo Tremblay, Kim Pariseau. Shapiro Wolfe–Carolle Fleury, Mark Shapiro.
Structural SDK
Mechanical Seymour Levine
Electrical Dupras Ledoux
Lighting CS Design
Multimedia GO Multimédia
Acoustical MJM Acoustical Consultants
Recording Studio Résonance TJL
LEED Minto Group
Contractor Module II Construction
Project Manager Artifacts Consulting
Area 4,000 m2
Budget withheld
Completion August 2012