NOMADE architecture

As Montreal enjoys a resurgence of architectural activity, a new generation of practice is emerges. While technology, branding and a strong commitment to design are not novel, some firms in Montreal are revisiting these processes of architecture more critically. NOMADE architecture, a new multidisciplinary firm that is able to explore the integration of architecture, design and information technology, is made up of three partners who created NOMADE in January 1999: Michel Lauzon, Martin Leblanc and Jean Pelland. All three studied at the Universit de Montral graduating in different years. Lauzon directs strategy and development, Leblanc is immersed in art and technology, while Pelland focuses on design and construction. Together, they are committed to building a firm where drawing and communication is ultimately the core of the architectural process. NOMADE’s first big project was 100 rue McGill, a $2 million conversion of an existing warehouse into 12 residential units. This commission gave the firm confidence, while allowing it to establish itself as a collective able to take on a difficult project on a difficult site with an associated series of complex regulations. The commission also enabled it to show prospective clients what they were able to achieve. Lauzon is clear in defining his commitment to listening to the client and translating ideas into built form.

During the early stages, many people thought that they were “3D guys”, and it became a challenge to overcome. Young firms are typically able to maximize the use of multimedia technology, but have a harder time translating sexy images and web pages into real projects. NOMADE places a high priority on overcoming the stigma of simply being young and tech savvy. Its goal is to navigate between the two poles: experimentation and pragmatism.

The decision to enter numerous competitions is another issue that young firms must make as a means of building a portfolio of built work. The mechanism of the competition has worked to NOMADE’s advantage for several reasons. It has entered competitions and has received fees for its work along with publicity, for example as one of the five finalists for the new Orchestre symphonique de Montral (OSM) competition and for the installation Translucide at the Palais des congrs de Montral. “The strength of our firm is to have a beehive of smaller firms that work ideas through competitions,” says Pelland. But Lauzon adds that by entering competitions, they were given opportunities to advance their technical abilities, evolve their design process more efficiently, and learn how to be more strategic when moving onto subsequent selection rounds. And while competitions became a high priority, partnering with other firms, another common approach used by young offices, has not been as aggressively pursued. Because NOMADE want to develop its own process of design, Lauzon explains that “we would control the media of the competition through our renderings. We drive the projects that way”.

NOMADE has never let go of the basic tools of representation: hand drawings, models and renderings. All three are used while multimedia technology is included in the process of representation when appropriate. On the subject of drawing, Lauzon criticizes the profession. “Architects forgot how to draw during the 1980s and 90s, so they hired outside renderers and illustrators to effectively design their projects. We have come full circle”. In other words, drawing is not another static element within the old model of the office. To NOMADE, “drawing is architecture”.

As the ways and means of delivering design projects has evolved and changed, Lauzon feels that architecture has lost a lot of ground. Determined to regain that lost position, the firm is asserting its presence as designers while working amidst artists, business professionals and any applicable discipline that will better serve the client. But Leblanc dismisses any suspicion that they have artists on staff. “It would be pretentious to say that we could sustain artists in our firm. Artists appreciate us because we are not trying to do the artist’s job and the artists are not doing trying to do ours.” Today, NOMADE comprises 11 employees who in fact, do come from different backgrounds. NOMADE’s concern for staffing revolves around the retention of staff. Promoting a group of high-quality team players is easier said than done. The principals feel that they are now at a stage where they have been able to build up a solid group of employees without having to constantly retrain new ones.

“The architectural process had to adapt to the ways of today,” Lauzon remarks. Referencing their own projects, all three partners take turns in noting how a rendering should not be used as an image but as a means of moving the project along, while keeping the client’s vision closely synchronized with that of the architect. They believe that visual communication has to extend beyond the image so that a client can amass the necessary tools to maximize the visual medium for their needs, as is the case for marketing. A recent example of its ability to merge architecture, communication and marketing is a condo project on rue McGill called Edifice MTL, a name NOMADE developed and branded for the client. The building is just under 15m wide and uses a vertical garden in the middle of the building in order to increase light penetration into the floor plate while allowing the building to work in conjunction with the massing along McGill. The vertical garden becomes almost a high-tech feature within the structure of the new building, attached to the end of a series of existing buildings that form a consistent massing along the street.

While NOMADE fully recognizes that its attitude toward design may take on a strong position, the ultimate process of design ends up being quite different for each project. There was always an attention placed on urban design and this has enabled the firm to pursue projects of an increasingly larger scale. For example, the “Translucide” installation is basically an image, but an image that is urban in scale. Some of NOMADE’s current projects are truly taking on a larger scale while making use of an understanding of technology and representation to find new methods of initiating innovative uses of landscape with technology within the public realm. As a means of advertising a broader scope of services, architects often attach the term ‘urban design’ after the word ‘architecture’ on their letterhead. To Lauzon, ‘urban design is architecture’. Both he and his partners think about architecture in a broad way and are quite conscious of the words they use in their presentations and marketing strategy. To avoid confusion amongst academics and clients about the use of ‘urban planning’, ‘urban design’ or ‘landscape urbanism’, the decision to use the label “NOMADE architecture” only is prescient for they are, first and foremost, practitioners who are wary of the misrepresentation of the firm’s professional ambitions.

The name NOMADE comes from the acronym New Office of Media, Architecture, Design and Events. While it no longer refers to this long form, the firm’s disused acronym has served as a mission statement that evolved into a brand for the practice. The anonymity of the name signifies the intent on working together as a group, both partners and employees, in the development of a practice. Being a young firm with ambition attracts other young and ambitious architects. Through the anonymous name of NOMADE, the principals have found that it is much easier to bring in new people into the design process. The three partners conclude that it is much easier to refer to fellow team members by first name rather than by last. This is an implicit critique of the phenomenon of the signature architect, an issue that is once again surfacing in light of recent high-profile commissions around the globe.

When people ask Michel, Jean or Martin and ask them what they do for a living, they reply that they work for NOMADE. The response is usually, “what’s it like to work for them?” And Lauzon smiles. As a
founding partner of the firm, his concept is working. People understand NOMADE as a process rather than the struggle of personalities to have individual names recognized.