Open Stage on the St. Lawrence: Amphithéâtre Trois-Rivières, Trois-Rivières, Quebec
PROJECT Amphithéâtre Trois-Rivières, Trois-Rivières, Quebec
ARCHITECTS Paul Laurendeau Architect (design and project architect)
in joint venture with Beauchesne Architecture Design
TEXT Odile Hénault
PHOTOS Marc Gibert, unless otherwise noted
Prologue: The Context
The city of Trois-Rivières, midway between Montreal and Quebec City, rarely makes the architectural headlines. But it did so this summer, with the opening of its new amphitheatre, an impressive construction on a unique St. Lawrence River site. Impressive because of its strong design concept but also because of the process that led to it: an open competition, rarely used anywhere in Canada of late, including in Quebec.
With this recent project, Trois-Rivières comes full circle, connecting with an affinity for modern architecture that was first felt more than 50 years ago. In 1964, in a climate of effervescence around the newly created profession of urban planning, a conference was held in the city and was attended, among others, by young local architect Jean-Claude Leclerc and André Wogenscky, a lifetime collaborator
of Le Corbusier. The two became friends and Leclerc soon visited Wogenscky in Paris. Not long after his return to Trois-Rivières, he and Roger Villemure would build the Mausolée des évêques (Bishops’ Mausoleum), considered to be the first manifestation of modern architecture in the city. Leclerc’s firm went on to build two major civic buildings, the City Hall and nearby Cultural Centre.
Thirty years later, in 1994, another encounter took place in Trois-Rivières: the Ordre des architectes du Québec’s annual meeting, focusing on the burgeoning competition process. The Ministry of Culture had recently embarked on a modest program of architectural competitions for small cultural buildings across Quebec, and although barely emerging, the process was already controversial. Mayor Guy Leblanc, who was to be instrumental in the birth of the amphitheatre project six years later, was certainly aware of the event, and one can presume he gained some insight into the competition process during this encounter. The stage was set for what was about to unfold.
Act One: The Dream
By 2000, the paper mill industry in the region had just about collapsed. This came as a shock to locals, who depended heavily on this major source of employment. The other side of the coin, however, was that
one of the city’s most beautiful sites—the riverside tract occupied by the abandoned mills—would eventually become available. Cirque Éloize staged a series of performances that summer in the old port of Trois-Rivières, and municipal authorities started to toy with the idea of building an open-air amphitheatre that would help revitalize the city’s depressed economy and support its cultural offerings.
The summer of 2000 was also the time of the Sydney Olympic Games, with images of the Opera House constantly being fed to worldwide television audiences. In Trois-Rivières, these images struck a chord with Mayor Leblanc, who started dreaming of a grand gesture, a landmark, for his city. The possibility of siting this landmark on the shores of the St. Lawrence River made it even more seductive. A local architectural firm was asked to produce a preliminary feasibility study; its conclusions were encouraging.
Act Two: The Competition
In 2010, under a subsequent municipal administration, a competition was finally launched for the design of the future amphitheatre. According to a former city official, an open and anonymous competition process was chosen in the hope of identifying a truly inventive solution, despite the unpredictability of such a formula.
The competition system has been a trademark of Quebec’s architectural scene for the last 25 years. It started in the early 1990s with two low-budget local museums, and in the years that followed, theatres, concert halls, and libraries were all realized through competitions. However, in recent years, the process has been plagued with onerous pre-qualification requirements. As a consequence, creativity—the very reason why competitions are held in the first place—has been seriously hampered.
It was therefore surprising to see the city of Trois-Rivières launch a competition when they had no legal obligation to do so. Even more surprising was the format selected: most patrons shy away from open competitions for fear of ending up with an inexperienced team. To mitigate this risk, the City of Trois-Rivières also hired a project management team (including engineers Groupement Dessau-Pluritec and theatre consultants Trizart Alliance) that would oversee the process leading to the building’s eventual construction.
The competition’s first phase received 47 entries. Three teams—Architem Wolff Shapiro Kuskowski architectes, Sid Lee Architecture/Pelland Leblanc architectes/Régis Côté et associés, and Paul Laurendeau Architect—were shortlisted. In April 2011, Laurendeau was declared the winner. This was to be his second theatre project; the first (the Salle de spectacle Dolbeau-Mistassini) was also the outcome of an open competition.
Act Three: The Building
The strength of the design lies in its direct and simple approach. Seen from a distance, the theatre appears as an elegant minimalist roof rising over the St. Lawrence River. Supported by eight slender, 25-metre-high columns, the roof forms an inverted pyramid, six metres deep at the centre tapering to 25 mm at the edges. Although the open-air performance space is intended to operate from late spring to early fall, parts
of the building are protected against the elements and will be occupied throughout the year.
The program is straightforward: a covered stage faces 3,500 fixed seats and space for up to 5,500 people on a grassy slope beyond. Spectators enter the amphitheatre directly from the outside. The bar, concessions, washrooms, and various support services are located under the seating area, accessed from a wide corridor that follows the curve of the seats above. During the off-season, a massive custom-made insulated door, acting as a curtain, closes the stage opening and protects the space from harsh weather conditions.
A two-level metal-and-glass volume, butting against the fly tower, is accessed from the street and houses the double-height glazed foyer, the box office, a reception lounge and various administrative areas. Storage is backstage, as are the performers’ dressing rooms. The loading dock area is parallel to the north façade.
Black and cherry red are the only two colours used throughout this project; exposed concrete and brushed aluminium complete the palette. The one exception to this restrained choice of colour is the aluminium siding used to clad the fly tower. Three shades of red were selected for the narrow vertical siding, custom-made to a non-standard profile.
The fly tower provides lateral stability to the 80-by-90-metre metallic roof structure. The remarkable roof, the building’s most striking feature, was developed with the help of engineer Serge Vézina, whose work underscores the design concept. The elegant structure he elaborated provides ample room for state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment as well as access walkways. Perforated metal panels—also in red—cover the entire underside of the roof. The effect of lights shimmering on this immense ceiling, particularly during concerts, adds another dimension of sophistication to this pristine project.
Still to be finalized is the landscaping of the adjacent grounds, the design of which is entrusted to Montreal architect and urban designer Peter Soland. His task includes the placing of 13 supersized CLT letters—spelling “Trois-Rivières” in seven-metre-high wood elements—affirming the city’s identity from the St. Lawrence River.
Finally, there was a deliberate decision to limit parking facilities on the site. Taxis, buses and shuttles access the building freely, but patrons are encouraged to walk the short distance that links the amphitheatre to the downtown area.
Epilogue: The Future Neighbourhood
The inauguration in 2015 of such a strong—and uncompromising—architectural statement is cause for celebration. Laurendeau deserves high praise for it, and along with him a long list of engineers, theatre consultants (including his own advisor, Guy Simard), professionals working for the municipality, as well as current and past political leaders. Ultimately, it was Laurendeau’s attention to the most minute details and his resilience through the process that made this improbable gem a reality.
Looming on the horizon, however, is a major residential development just north of the amphitheatre, on either side of the somewhat oversized Avenue des Draveurs. As Trois-Rivières promotes this ambitious
project, it is important that the city retains the coherency of its vision, which slowly worked its way from a mere dream in 2000 to today’s remarkable visual landmark.
As it stands, the building is already a powerful reminder that it is time for Quebec to return to the true spirit of competitions—as a tool for finding inventive solutions and nurturing talent from among all ages and ranks of architects.
Odile Hénault is an architecture critic and a professional advisor who was involved in the first competitions organized by Quebec’s Department of Culture and Communications.