Reinventing Laurent & Clark: Laurent & Clark, Montreal, Quebec

A downtown Montreal 
development creates a new 
identity for a fragmented site.

The multi-tower project fronts onto the Parterre, a park that doubles as an outdoor performance venue during Montreal’s festival season.

PROJECT Laurent & Clark


TEXT Claire Lubell

PHOTOS Adrien Williams

The recently completed Laurent & Clark condominium building in Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles is perhaps the most ambitious—and certainly the most high-profile—of a string of collaborations led by Jean-Pierre LeTourneux, principal of MSDL Architectes, and Denis Robitaille, founder of developers Rachel Julien. According to LeTourneux, who has worked on projects with Robitaille since the 1990s, it takes an “audacious” developer to make good architecture—one who cares about details like, as LeTourneux points out to me, air exhaust vents seamlessly incorporated into a façade. The project as a whole has impressive presence: its first phase tower includes an array of colourfully partitioned balconies facing an urban park, while its second phase centres on a slim black tower.

Colourful partitions give a playful presence to the tower’s park-fronting western façade.

But more than its striking façades, what distinguishes Laurent & Clark is how its massing intricately responds to the constraints of a complex site. The project occupies two-thirds of a very particular block, transformed several times since the 1960s through major projects that changed the urban structure of the city. If we look back to the early 2000s, the site was vacant and bisected by an arc of Boulevard de Maisonneuve, one of the main car-dominated arteries that traverses Montreal’s downtown, effectively making the area unbuildable. This was not the original urban grid, but rather an alteration born from the construction of the metro in the 1960s: below ground, a tunnel follows the same arc as the street. 

But after 2008, the grid was returned to its pre-1960s Cartesian organization, when the City of Montreal began to remake the area into the Quartier des spectacles. Boulevard de Maisonneuve was severed, liberating an open area opposite the site to become the Parterre—one of the main public parks that host concerts and performances during Montreal’s summer festivals—but also leaving two awkwardly shaped residual parcels at the corner of the re-directed Boulevard de Maisonneuve, which were too small to be developed. 

This remained the case until 2016, when Rachel Julien purchased both parcels from the city, and the larger adjacent parcel from the developer of Loft des Arts, the 1914 brick building (converted into condos in 2010) that occupies the other end of the narrow block. Together, the three parcels have now become one of the most visible developments in the city. 

The project’s fragmented massing is both pragmatic and contextual. On one hand, as LeTourneux explains, the project’s 356-unit count made it too large for the developer to easily build in a single phase. But more importantly, MSDL wanted to avoid an imposing and massive structure that would create deep, dark units. Moreover, they felt that it was important to acknowledge the mix of building scales and eras around the site. 

The project steps down to a three-storey block facing Boulevard St. Laurent. The project’s vibrant mix of materials and textures is inspired by its eclectic urban surroundings.

In fact, the surrounding city blocks epitomize the patchwork of much of Montreal’s present-day urban realm. While Boulevard Saint Laurent remains one of the city’s key commercial arteries and is historically important to many communities, the blocks on either side of Laurent & Clark are suffering from a noticeable decline. Just across the street are a series of small-scale shopfronts in historic brick and greystone buildings, some apparently vacant, and many in evident need of restoration. The telltale signs of gentrification are also visible along the block: a trendy bar, café, and restaurant have moved in beside a vacated tire and mechanic’s shop, whose prime corner lot now awaits redevelopment. The opposite corner was home to the legendary punk-rock venue Katacombes until 2019, and will soon be occupied by high-rise student accommodations, a project by social economy organization UTILE.

The second phase tower includes outdoor walkways and a sculptural exterior access stair that riffs off of the city’s vernacular spiral staircases.

It is relevant to note that Laurent & Clark was initiated before city regulations mandating affordable units were in place, so the project primarily offers relatively small studios and one- or two-bedroom units, rapidly snatched up at market rates that were no doubt unattainable for many. So yes, the project inevitably marks a sharp divide between an existing context in transition and the sparkling newness of the Quartier des spectacles. But, to their credit, MSDL’s solution quite deftly mediates between the nine-times density allowed by the city and the competing priorities on either side of the block. Along the relatively narrow Boulevard Saint Laurent, a three-storey base avoids creating an overpowering and claustrophobic tunnel, and maintains the views from windows on the south face of the Lofts des Arts. In contrast, along the more open Boulevard de Maisonneuve and Rue Clark, the project presents two towers, one light and playful, the other dark and minimalist. Both towers have surprisingly slim profiles and are connected by footbridges made with discrete metal grate decks and glass railings.  

The corner is set back to avoid a subway tunnel below, allowing for an outdoor café patio and plaza.

Aesthetics aside, achieving the effect of a reduced scale by breaking the project up into two smaller, thinner volumes was not a straightforward design solution. For LeTourneux, the first and most challenging condition to negotiate was the metro, because it forced a setback of the building’s vertical structure from Boulevard de Maisonneuve to avoid the tunnel below. To make up for the lost floor area, the dark-tinted glass tower has extended slabs that cantilever above, which in turn results in a somewhat awkward density of columns within the units on the southern end. On the positive side, the setback benefits the public realm by opening up a welcoming passage from Saint Laurent metro to the Parterre, and creates space for a corner café patio that is sure to become a popular spot. 

To complicate things further, the only pre-existing structure on the site—a small building housing electric equipment for the metro—had to be maintained. While it is discretely integrated into the facade, its presence interrupts what could have otherwise been a continuous ground-level of inviting commercial and social spaces spilling onto the Parterre. 

Another challenge was how to create passthrough units in the lighter building facing the Parterre, so that residents could enjoy concerts from their front balconies, but have a quiet area to retreat to. First, MSDL designed units with a floorplate that is only fourteen metres deep—much less than the standard eighteen metres. This allows for natural light to penetrate most of the space, notes LeTourneux. But the more important innovation is how MSDL did away with a central corridor, in favour of four single elevators for access, and an exterior passageway and stair for egress. Each elevator rises directly from the underground parking and, once past the fifth floor, gives direct access to either one or two units. While passthrough units and exterior egress stairs are quintessential to Montreal’s urban fabric—visible walking down hundreds of streets of duplexes and multiplexes on the island—the way this principle is applied to a 65-metre-high, 21-storey tower is uncommon and very well-resolved. In the two-sided units at Laurent & Clark, bedrooms give access to narrow exterior passageways, which lead to either the sculptural-but-utilitarian exterior egress stair, or, via a vertigo-inducing footbridge, to the core of the phase two tower. The ingenious solution allows the two separate towers to share egress stairs. (A temporary stair was in place while phase two was under construction.) 

Bridges connect the two towers, providing shared access to the exterior stairs for emergency egress.

The exterior passageways overlook the building’s central courtyard. LeTourneux says that this space, although accessible, serves primarily as a light well, akin to that of historic apartment buildings in Paris. This is not his only French reference. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation is mentioned as an inspiration for the passthrough unit design. Yet, in a sense, it is the dual-access elevators that serve the role of Corb’s alternating corridors. Laurent & Clark’s exterior passageways, connecting footbridges, and visible egress stair could perhaps be more closely connected to the brutalist housing classics of 1960s and 1970s England—consider Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, or Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill estate. But while those projects had front doors opening onto public pedestrian decks intended to function as “streets in the sky,” Laurent & Clark’s residents are not in the habit of using the passageways for circulation, out of respect for the privacy of their neighbours. Rather, they can make use of them in the summer, to enjoy the morning sunlight and the impressive views across eastern Montreal. 

he exterior stair and walkways overlook a courtyard that doubles as a lightwell for units on the lower floors.

Laurent & Clark responds to the demands of its complex site with an innovative and refined form. It draws on the past half-century
of change in its urban context to set a hopeful example for inventive, human-centered residential tower design for the half-century to come.

Claire Lubell is a designer and editor with an international background in architecture and urban design, and has guided print, digital, and open-access publications of several major research projects. She was a long-time editor at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and now works in heritage and territorial research at the Montreal cooperative L’Enclume.

CLIENT Rachel Julien | ARCHITECT TEAM Jean-Pierre LeTourneux (FRAIC), Anne Lafontaine, Gaetan Roy, Marie-Eve Ethier Chiasson, Vincent Lauzon, Yien Chao, Sami Jebali, Pierre Gervais, Guy Rousseau, Mahindar Youssef, Martin Radisson, Nicolas Maalouf, Gaétan Roy, Nils Rabota, Marie-Eve Ethier Chiasson, Mehand Aziz, Jean-François Jodoin, MacGregor Wilson | STRUCTURAL CIMA + | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL BPA | LANDSCAPE Projet Paysage | INTERIORS MSDL Architectes (Sabrina Lareau) & Gauvreau Design | ACOUSTIC SNC Lavalin | SURVEYOR Le Groupe Conseil T.T. Katz | CIRCULATION Aecom | CODE GLT+ | WIND RWDI | ELEVATORS JMCI | CONTRACTOR Rachel Julien | AREA 36,700 m?| BUDGET $110 M | COMPLETION Fall 2023


As appeared in the April 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine