Museum Metamorphosis: Montreal Insectarium, Montreal, Quebec

Montreal’s new insectarium gives visitors an insect’s-eye-view of their surroundings.

A sequence of pollinator gardens lines the entrance to the Insectarium, on the grounds of Montreal’s Botanical Gardens.

PROJECT Montreal Insectarium, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECTS Kuehn Malvezzi / Pelletier De Fontenay / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architects in consortium

TEXT Olivier Vallerand

PHOTOS James Brittain

If you expect to see traditional displays of pinned insects and scores of vivariums when visiting Montreal’s freshly rebuilt Insectarium, you might be surprised. Similarly, for those looking for a striking architectural object, the experience overturns expectations. Rather than focusing on traditional displays or architectural fireworks, the new building is much more about creating a new type of museum journey—one with memorable spaces and lessons that follow visitors long after their visit.

The transformation of the Insectarium resulted from one of three competitions held in 2014 to rethink Montreal’s constellation of nature museums. Founded in 1990 as an addition to the botanical garden, the Insectarium had since grown into one of the world’s largest museums devoted to insects. The competition followed a cultural and scientific project—branded as the Insectarium’s “metamorphosis”—to reimagine the museum’s mission and museological approach, going beyond the simple display of insects. The team selected for the project included Berlin-based Kuehn Malvezzi and Montreal-based Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes. For lead design architect Wilfried Kuehn, the competition represented a rare and exciting opportunity to integrate the team’s experience in landscape, architecture, exhibition design, and industrial design. The brief, he notes, was written in a comprehensive way that already paid attention to the different scales of design.

The winning team’s proposal built on the museum’s desire for an innovative immersive experience for visitors. The concept is centered around an understanding of biophilia that aims to guide visitors through experiencing the world as if they were insects. By better understanding insects and learning to live with them, visitors are encouraged to become agents of change for ecological sustainability.

As is often the case, following the competition, budgetary and technical revisions meant that the project was heavily modified—it opened five years later than Montreal’s 375th anniversary, for which it was initially planned. But by strategically compressing the plan and tightly overlapping functions, the team succeeded in retaining the original concept, and only shortening the exhibition path by 14%, while diminishing the overall footprint by 50%.

The visitor’s journey starts outside, with a sloped pollinator garden leading down to the entrance. New greenhouses rise above the ground plane, but most of the building is hidden underground, with only a soon-to-be vine-covered dome hinting at the expanse of the experience awaiting beyond the greenhouses.

Visitors are led though a twisting tunnel, reminiscent of insect burrows.

Once inside, an unadorned concrete reception area welcomes visitors, filled with light and opening towards the landscape. The bright space is a palate cleanser, before visitors are invited to enter a dark, tight corridor—built from reinforced sprayed concrete to mimic the rammed earth construction originally planned, and immediately calling to mind an ants’ nest. If obvious, the metaphor certainly works: you are being called to experience your environment as an insect. After a few months, the material is already somewhat smoothed out by the touch of visitors, lending it an organic feel that echoes the natural environment of insects. Hubert Pelletier, one of the design architects, explains that the team conducted extensive on-site experimentation to develop a wall construction that would wear well over time, rather than being merely a surface effect.

A series of a half-dozen cave-like rooms invites people to experience the world as if they were insects; in this case, travelling like a grasshopper between blades of vegetation.

The tunnel then opens to six cave-like rooms, each with different sensorial experiences aimed at conveying how insects perceive the world differently than us. Here again, the architecture is an integral part of the scientific knowledge being shared, through a floor that vibrates, ultraviolet lighting showing patterns on the floors, an upside-down space, and tight passages. Even though they are fully integrated in the architectural experience, these spaces feel primarily geared towards young children, who are more prone to wholeheartedly accept the invitation to play and spend time engaging with the spaces than adults.

Visitors then exit the tunnel to a more traditional exhibition room, though with a twist. At the centre of the room, immersive vivariums with curved glass fronts allow visitors to have a 180-degree view of live insects. On the room’s walls, live feeds from cameras inside the vivariums project videos of both the insects and the visitors’ faces, for the benefit of those who might not be comfortable getting so close to the live insects.

The underground spaces culminate in a dome-topped exhibition space, where preserved insects are arrayed by colour in a top set of cases, and by evolutionary characteristic in the cases below.

Visitors then gradually ascend to the dome-roofed room glimpsed from outside—a contemplative space quite different from the initial twisting tunnel, even if built from the same sprayed concrete. A double row of display cases encircles the walls, a visual treatment calling for different scales of reading. The top row organizes insects following a chromatic circle, while the bottom row contains thematic displays. Here again, the experience is completely different from what people might expect from an exhibition: the focus seems to be on the overall impact of the space as much as the individual vitrines, creating a surprisingly versatile space that successfully accommodates both quiet moments and the activities of excited children.

A ramp leads visitors to the butterfly greenhouse, where they are invited to encounter a range of live insects.

The final space, reached through a long ramp and sliding doors, is the walk-in vivarium housed in a large greenhouse. In a suddenly hot and humid environment, visitors are welcomed by swirling butterflies as well as other insects on an elevated ground, many corralled into small open-air display pens. Along one wall of the glass house, leaf-cutter ants parade along a long, root-like path between their nest and a feeding ground of leaves and flowers.

Unlike many other nature museums, this one does not hide the mechanical systems behind fake trees or in ponds. The design team has chosen instead to highlight the complex integration of the different systems necessary for this artificial environment to survive in Montreal’s climate—a great challenge for a building aiming for LEED Gold. On view as well is an adjoining production greenhouse, where the habitat plants for the insects are grown. The only thing hidden is the complexity of the underground network of offices, exhibition spaces and technical services creating the artificial topography of the greenhouse.

The butterfly greenhouse, shown here, adjoins a production greenhouse, where most of the plants needed to sustain the insects in the museum are cultivated.

The decision to make everything visible also underscores the research mission of the museum. An app designed for visitors to identify the insects they see in the greenhouse—and later in their everyday life—facilitates scientific exploration, while also helping staff map how insects navigate the space, allowing for a better management of the collection over time. The app is part of a maximally inclusive approach espoused by both designers and curators, where visitors can find different levels of engagement that break the traditional scripted museum experience.

The Insectarium’s management team was thrilled to work with architects open to a co-design process: something they saw as essential to their cultural and scientific project. In response, the architects moved away from typical big, formal gestures, to create instead what Hubert Pelletier describes as “a series of experiences.” Very few informational exhibits are present in the museum, rather, the architectural experience itself creates meaning and becomes the exhibition. Insectarium director Maxim Larrivée is already planning further collaborations with the same design team when the exhibitions need updating. Both the client and design teams emphasize how they took risks with this project. They hope visitors will be as excited as they were to put their fears away, and become better acquainted with their small neighbours.

Olivier Vallerand is Assistant Professor at l’École de design, Université de Montréal.

CLIENT Espace pour la Vie | ARCHITECT TEAM Kuehn Malvezzi—Wilfried Kuehn, Johannes Kuehn, Simona Malvezzi, Nina S. Beitzen, Yu Ninagawa, Jan Imberi, Rebekka Bode, Thomas Guethler, Berenice Corret, Christian Felgendreher, Valeska Hoechst, Andrea Bagnato. Pelletier de Fontenay— Yves de Fontenay, Hubert Pelletier, Yann Gay Crosier, Nathaniel Proulx Joanisse, Nicolas Mussche.  Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes—Nicolas Ranger (MRAIC), Christine Nolet, Roxanne Rochette, Catherine Demers, Joannie Quirion, Germain Paradis, Sylvain Morrier, Marc-Antoine Bourbeau, Nathalie Grégoire | STRUCTURAL NCK | CIVIL Génie+, Lévis | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Dupras Ledoux | LANDSCAPE atelier le balto, Berlin | CONTRACTOR KF Construction | SIGNAGE Kuehn Malvezzi with Double Standards, Berlin | EXECUTION AND SITE SUPERVISION MUSEOLOGY La bande à Paul | SUSTAINABILITY/LEED CIMA+ | AREA 3,600 m2 | BUDGET $31.78 M (excluding museology) | COMPLETION April 2022