National Treasure: Pavillon d’accueil de l’Assemblée Nationale du Québec, Quebec City, Quebec

Quebec’s motto, “Je me souviens,” appeared for the first time—carved in stone—as part of Eugène-Étienne Taché’s elaborate façade for the province’s Parliament Building in Quebec City. The 19th-century building continues to blend architecture and politics in the present-day, with an impressive addition opened in May. The project is both a complex and careful intervention to what is certainly one of the most symbolically important heritage buildings in the province.

Ever since the 1984 shooting by Denis Lortie, Quebec’s National Assembly has worked to reconcile its desire to be open to everyone with the need to ensure the safety of assembly members, staff and visitors. After years of planning and studies of similar efforts in other political centres, the Assembly hired Provencher_Roy and GLCRM to design a new visitor facility that would sit in front of the Parliament Building and double as a protective barrier.

Instead, the architects proposed an underground space. While surprised, the National Assembly’s representatives quickly embraced the architects’ argument that this solution would avoid creating a showy, quickly dated object. Moreover, it would defer to Taché’s elaborate Parliamentary façade, complementing the narrative of the historic building.

Tucked underneath the grand stair fronting Quebec’s Parliament Building, a new underground welcome centre includes public meeting rooms and creates a secure entry to the historic building. Photo by Olivier Blouin

Using the space underneath the existing twin stair in front of the Parliament, the architects created a new, secure entrance. Community and parliamentary rooms are arrayed alongside a continuous path that circles under the gardens, before crossing under the existing building and emerging in a new circulation core in the Parliament’s courtyard. The route invites visitors to approach the heritage façade, offering glimpses of it throughout their journey, interspersed with enlarged historic images and interpretative exhibits. The images and exhibits focus on collective successes in Quebec’s history, counterbalancing the existing Parliament’s iconography highlighting heroic individuals.

For the first time, windows look into two new committee rooms (the glass is electronically controlled to be obscured when needed). An upgrade from existing facilities, these new spaces were designed to account for the needs of television broadcast and include acoustically isolated press and translation booths. The importance of the historic “Je me souviens” is mirrored in the new spaces: written on the front lobby wall, the motto is the first thing visitors see when entering.

Windows allow visitors to see inside two committee rooms, which they could not do previously. The electronically controlled glass can be obscured if needed for certain meetings. Photo by Olivier Blouin

For the architects, the design gives the Parliament Building back to the public by increasing accessibility in different ways. It adds more space for security before giving free access to the whole building. It offers glimpses of the political processes through visual access to the previously closed-off committee sessions. This is complemented with the addition of classrooms and children’s spaces for public programs. Finally, the main circulation element of a continuous ramp, paired with the courtyard circulation core, creates improved physical access that circumvents the usual challenges associated with historic buildings.

A central oculus brings daylight from the plaza down through the welcome centre. Photo by Stéphane Groleau

As architect Nicolas Demers-Stoddart of Provencher_Roy notes, one of the challenges of designing for a political context is to “create meaning without being bland.” The designers chose colours, materials, and even technical systems to convey meanings that would reference (both directly and more subtly) the history of the Parliament Building, of Quebec’s political history, and of democratic traditions.

For example, the project includes a motif of circles that, for the architects, links to the existing grand entry stair, but also refers to the Greek Pnyx, the meeting place of the Athenian democratic assemblies. However, if the circular shape of the oculus seems natural, other elements—such as the circular furniture in the circular plan of the boutique—become overly repetitive.

A long ramp spirals through the centre, punctuated by entrances to a boutique and meeting spaces. Photo by Olivier Blouin

The interior finishes also dialogue with the existing building. Smooth white surfaces are used to bring more light into the underground space, while blue and red coloured ceilings, walls and floors act as an orientation device around the spiralling ramp. The colours refer to the Salon bleu in the northern wing and Salon rouge in the southern wing of the existing Parliament–even if the hues have been modified to be more vibrant than the heritage colours of those rooms. Most impressive are the gorgeous wood panels depicting images from Quebec’s history. Each is pierced with pixel-like dots that allow them to serve as air return grilles, while concealing a large part of the addition’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Wood panels surrounding the rotunda are engraved with imagery that evokes key episodes in the province’s history. Photo by Olivier Blouin

The approach of working underground left the existing building and landscape almost intact. It also brought challenges: including taking apart then rebuilding the stairs over an explosion-proofed lobby, and building alongside and under the existing building. Few visible interventions were made to the existing Parliament Building; the most prominent are the attachment point of the new circulation core, and at the foot of the grand stairs, where a small fountain was redesigned to allow for an accessible path to the lobby. The latter decision brought some controversy, but on the whole, these interventions were a small price to pay for a completely transformed institution with much improved access. In this regard, the pavilion continues a series of exemplary additions to heritage buildings in Quebec City, including the Maison de la littérature (CA, June 2016) and the MNBAQ’s Pavillon Lassonde (CA, November 2016).

The colours of the secondary circulation areas refer to the red and blue chambers in the historic Parliament. Photo by Olivier Blouin

In both its spatial experience and visuals, the project successfully creates a new contemporary narrative open to future interpretations. It also highlights some of the ongoing tensions that propel democratic life forward. For example, Demers-Stoddart points to an image representing the suffragist movement as being one of the most powerful ones along the ramp, and women’s names are also given to the new committee rooms: Marie-Claire Kirkland, first female assembly member and minister, and Pauline Marois, first female Quebec premier. Despite these acknowledgments of the importance of women in public life, the project did not include childcare spaces to support parental involvement in democratic life—although, to its credit, it does include a nursing room.

The province’s motto is engraved on the entry wall to the pavilion. The words first appeared as part of the carved stone decorations on the historic legislative building’s façade. Photo by Stéphane Groleau

While Taché’s Parliament is a strong example of traditional symbolic architecture with its imposing exterior, Provencher_Roy and GLCRM’s project is ultimately an interior-focused project. It uses this freedom to create an impressive interior volume that privileges experience over form, carefully balancing didactic elements and the expressive strengths of materials and light. Taking inspiration from Taché’s work, its uses architecture to share a story about a people and its evolution.

Interestingly, the National Assembly has recognized the importance of the pavilion’s architectural design in some of its current exhibits, which highlight the role of architecture in democracy and the evolution of the architecture profession itself. Vitrines put Taché’s drawings and historic drafting tools side-by-side with the new pavilion’s models and drawings. As Demers-Stoddart points out, while symbols and meanings have changed, architecture still retains a powerful impact on the representation of democratic institutions—and on their future.

Olivier Vallerand is Assistant Professor at The Design School, Arizona State University, and an architect with 1x1x1 Creative Lab.

PROJECT Pavillon d’accueil de l’Assemblée Nationale du Québec, Quebec City, Quebec ARCHITECTS Provencher_Roy + GLCRM in consortium TEXT Olivier Vallerand PHOTOS Olivier Blouin, unless otherwise noted

CLIENT Assemblée Nationale du Québec | ARCHITECT TEAM Provencher_Roy—Claude Provencher (FRAIC), Matthieu Geoffrion (MRAIC), Nicolas Demers-Stoddart (MRAIC), Maxime Giguère, Marilina Cianci, Émilie Banville, Neil Aspniall, Yumeng Cai, Daniel Legault, Pierre Lussier, Fanette Montmartin, Sami Bouzouita, Andres Moreno, Maïda Beylerian, Charles-Alexandre Lefebvre. GLCRM—Janie Lacoursière, Josué Martineau, Jocelyn Martel, Réal St-Pierre, Suzanne Castonguay, Raphaël Hamelin, Marc Letellier (FRAIC), Francois Bécotte, Shirley Gagnon, Louis-Xavier Gadoury, Sarah Landry, Maxime Turgeon, Vincent Lavoie, Valérie Morin. | STRUCTURAL WSP Canda | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL CIMA+ | LANDSCAPE Provencher_Roy | INTERIORS Provencher_Roy | CONTRACTOR POMERLEAU | SECURITY CSP consultants en sécurité | A/V Go Multimédia | AREA 5,300 m2 | BUDGET $37.5 M (Construction); $65 M (Overall) | COMPLETION May 2019