Political Vision

PROJECT Habitations Loggia_Prfontaine et Rachel, Borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Archiconcept + Nomade

TEXT David Theodore

PHOTOS Stphane Brugger

Les Habitations Prfontaine is one of those agile social housing projects that manages to both stick out and fit in. The tetris-like eight-storey tower sports an orange snout that looms like a grain elevator in a prairie town. At the same time, the ensemble also includes four-storey row houses, red brick cladding, external metal staircases, and well-demarcated street alignments that carefully knit the project back into the existing housing fabric.

The project surrounds the Centre Raymond-Prfontaine, a now-empty civic hospital first built in 1886 which was later transformed into a youth rehabilitation centre. Its neighbourhood–a mishmash of car washes, imported suburban townhouses, industrial park, 1930s hospital, and small-scale row housing that has grown up around the former Angus railway yards in east Montreal–is in transition. Ironically, the site made national headlines in 2001 when it was squatted by activists protesting the lack of social housing in Montreal.

The young but growing Montreal-based firm NOMADE designed the project in conjunction with architect Pierre Richard. In fact, according to principal Jean Pelland, both the site layout and unit programming were well established when NOMADE entered the picture. Richard had made an earlier proposal, based on a close engagement with the community housing group les Habitations communautaires LOGGIA. In Montreal, non-profit groups like LOGGIA work as intermediaries between the citizens and community groups who need low-income affordable housing, and the government agencies who pay for the projects. The group also manages ongoing building operations. Pelland adds that Richard promoted and established accessibility guidelines, so that some 83 of the 122 units are completely accessible.

If this all sounds more political than architectural, that’s because it is. The great success of the project is the coordinated communication between residents, municipal authorities, a non-profit housing organization, and architects–a coordination already in place when NOMADE joined the project, and from which they learned and profited. Pelland singles out the support of the borough, and especially the work of former Prix de Rome winner Sophie Charlebois, who represented the collaborative efforts of the borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie’s urban services. She created a genuine exchange: she helped NOMADE understand municipal concerns, and defended and explained their suggestions to the city and the clients. The identification and propagation of such (political) expertise will play a crucial role in guaranteeing the architectural viability of future social housing projects.

There were many opportunities to develop architectural ideas; some features, such as the composition of the exterior finishes, were generated by budget constraints (the final cost per square foot was an astonishing $94) during the pricing process. Others developed over the course of construction. Phase One involved row housing built with wood balloon framing covered by red bricks and grey-painted concrete panels hung with galvanized nails. However, Phase Two, the tower, was made of concrete. Pelland says that on subsequent housing design projects, NOMADE has opted to build even the row housing out of concrete. As he explains, design-wise, social housing is an exercise in minimalism, so judiciously detailed exposed concrete can create attractive interior surfaces, such as simple ceiling finishes that don’t interfere with bulkheads.

Other formal, tectonic, and planning ideas spring more clearly from NOMADE’s ambition to design a project with visual lan–“a fun eventful thing,” as Pelland calls it. For instance, in NOMADE’s hands, the iconic Montreal exterior metal fire exits are turned into giant Tonka Toylike play structures and terraces at the back of the project. The row housing offers a mixture of public and private entrances. The first floor has fully accessible units. Bright yellow staircases punctuate the entrances to the upper levels, a reminder of traditional Montreal housing plans. The apartments on floors 3 and 4 are also double-height, which affords some terraces, and some simple compositional effects. “We used the balconies to break up the volumes,” says Pelland. And, of course, the unimpeded views from the upper floors of the tower block are spectacular.

The Centre Raymond-Prfontaine forms the centrepiece of the proposed next phases of the project, which will add about 150 affordable market condominiums aimed at first-time buyers. This third phase will include the remediation of land originally slated for housing that proved too contaminated for inhabitation. And encouragingly, all these future plans are part of a large, community-based effort to redeem the “second ring” around Montreal’s business core–the zone of now underused lands holding transport and light manufacturing–into affordable, low-cost social housing. “Our previous experience was with private promoters,” says Pelland. “We were influenced by the look of European housing design, but there’s a greater purpose to this. We quickly learned that we had to make a place for a community that’s truly part of the city.” CA

David Theodore is a Regional Correspondent for Canadian Architect.


Client Les Habitations Communautaires Loggia

Architect Team Jean Pelland, Pierre Richard, Michel Lauzon, Martin Leblanc, Yvon Lachance, Charles Thriault, Luc Durivage, Natacha Mercier, Chi Long Van, Pierre-Alexandre Rhaume, Ric Provost, Martin Robillard, Luc Gauvin

Structural Sylvain Parr et Associs

Mechanical/electrical Dupras Ledoux

Landscape/interiors Archiconcept + Nomade

Contractor Consortium MR

Area 13,000 M2

Budget $13 M (for the 2 Phases)

Completion July 2007