Ringleaders

PROJECT Cirque Du Soleil Offices, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Faucher Aubertin Brodeur Gauthier Architectes

TEXT Rhys Phillips

PHOTOS Steve Montpetit

When the Conference Board of Canada published its latest report titled How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada, it was quickly redubbed “the report on mediocrity.” In a scathing section called Innovation, the country received a failing grade of “D.” To some, this may seem a harsh assessment for a country that boasts Bombardier, a highly efficient (if aesthetically challenged) housing industry, several global architecture firms, and at least one city that consistently ranks at or near the top of the best cities in the world. The Board, it seems, has an overwhelming bias to technology. Still, it seems almost shocking that the report could not find space to celebrate the innovative achievement of Quebec’s Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque, as most Canadians know, is Montreal’s entertainment juggernaut that started in 1984 as a single show with 73 employees in Quebec City, but which has now reached 4,000 performers, artists and administrators in 40 countries. This figure includes 1,800 in its north-end Montreal world headquarters alone. Annual output is pressing towards one billion dollars and, according to Brian Scott on the web magazine Theatremania, “it seems that no matter where you are in the world, one of Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular extravaganzas is playing right now,” including Tokyo, Dubai, Macau and Las Vegas. The dazzling creative and financial success of Cirque resulted in founder Guy Lalibert–who started as a fire-breathing busker–being selected as Ernst & Young’s “World Entrepreneur” in 2007.

When Dubai investors Istithmar World and Nakheel PJSC–both units of government-owned Dubai World–acquired 20 percent of Cirque du Soleil in early August, there was considerable unease. Not only might Canada lose an important

cultural asset, what would be the fate of the remarkable cultural, architectural and urban design project called La Tohu, the City of Circus Arts (see CA, January 2006) which Cirque has nurtured since its inception? However, as I was assured during a recent tour of its Montreal facilities, this iconic institution was going nowhere as long as Lalibert was around.

La Tohu, which roughly translates as “pandemonium,” is a steadily growing circus arts complex run by a non-profit organization created in November 1999 by En Piste, the umbrella organization for Quebec’s circus arts professionals, organizations and institutions. In addition to Cirque, a key member includes the National Circus School whose own 11-storey headquarters (Lapointe, Magne et Associs) opened in 2003. On the southwest corner of the site, this was followed by Tohu, the drum-shaped circus performance facility coupled with supporting exhibition and workshop spaces, which was designed by Schme Consultants, L’architecte Jacques Plante, Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes–Consortium. Three ambitious goals drive La Tohu. The first is to make Montreal an international circus arts capital; the second is to participate with the city in the regeneration of the Miron Quarry/waste disposal site in the Saint-Michel Environmental Complex, Montreal’s second-largest park after Mont Royal; and the last is to contribute to the revitalization of the surrounding neighbourhood of Saint-Michel.

Significant mainstream and architectural media coverage has been given to the impressive designs of the Circus School and the Tohu Pavilion as well as to ric Gauthier’s Governor General’s Award-winning 115 Studio (Les Architectes FABG), Cirque’s residential complex for performers training for upcoming shows. But since the completion of Dan Hanganu’s original building in 1997, Cirque’s headquarters has also been steadily expanding. The completion of Le Mt (the mast) in 2008, an eight-storey administration and event space tower on the site’s south central area, marks Gauthier’s third significant addition and brings Cirque’s working space to 400,000 square feet, overcoming a variety of challenges associated with widely dispersed workspaces. Gauthier’s first contribution to the site was in 2001 when he designed a substantial workshop space, Les Ateliers, to the south of the original Le Studio. This was followed in 2006 by a two-level cafeteria and music studios that wrap around Hanganu’s opaque studio cube at the north end, and most recently by Le Mt.

Gauthier’s approach to the site is to develop the complex as “old city organic,” ensuring an almost seamlessness to the connections between the various new additions to the site. From time to time it has been suggested that a master plan be developed for Cirque’s campus but this has always been rejected. Therefore, the original interior village idea–that Lalibert believes eschews a closed-off bureaucratic environment which is counter-intuitive to the openness and interaction that helps creativity to flourish–is sustained throughout.

For Gauthier’s Atelier, workshops and offices are divided by a full-height interior street spanned by bridges. The workshops are abundantly filled with southeast light while large light boxes on the roof allow light to penetrate. A two-storey bistro with a mezzanine wrapped in alternating horizontal panels of clear and bright yellow glass is incorporated into the Atelier. On the 2006 cafeteria wing, a finer-textured aluminum grating was substituted for the complex’s ubiquitous corrugated metal cladding (although it returns to dress three of four sides of the newest tower addition). The change in scale introduced by the grating neatly plays off the large checkerboard pattern on the Studio volume looming above that Hanganu achieved by alternating the direction of the corrugated panels.

Filled with light, the cafeteria is enclosed with alternating vertical panels of transparent glass and the opaque aluminum panels. The latter appear as if they might slide back and forth across the glass, thus providing a sense of dynamic motion along the north faade. Between Hanganu’s original blue metal-clad building and the new cafeteria/studio wing, panels of fritted glass embellished with a pattern of circles and parallel lines contribute to a sense of casual openness. After all, “circus” derives from the Latin word for ring and the Roman circus was marked by a rounded end with parallel sides. Inside, a bold white-painted steel spiral staircase winds up to the cafeteria’s second level.

With his latest addition, however, Gauthier has added the closest thing to a visual landmark for the sprawling complex. Le Mt’s eight storeys, tucked just west of the Atelier wing, veers from Cirque’s horizontal orientation. A spacious two-storey glazed lobby, filled with abundant southern light, connects this tower with the Atelier while providing an employee entrance near the parking area. It shares the first level with an equally light-filled lounge for eating, relaxation, and inspiration.

In plan and articulation, the tower appears relatively simple with its materials remaining largely faithful to earlier components. A shift of emphasis, however, takes place on the south elevation to provide the final contribution to creating greater public prominence for Cirque’s face towards the city. This process had started with the earlier Atelier faade, which continued the use of ribbon windows between corrugated metal panels, but which was animated by a freestanding galvanized steel-frame shading system of brise-soleils utilizing round HSS tubes. Against this intricate play of filial detail, the tower’s south elevation is considerably slicker, presenting a high-transparency glass plane. When viewed from far away, however, the tower appropriately displays–given Cirque’s performances–a decidedly precarious balancing act. A single-storey glazed slab, its ends cantilevered, stretches across the top level of the north half of the tower. On its east side, the slab is partially supported by the expres
sed-in-metal elevator shaft.

According to Gauthier, the tower is a clear urban gesture to provide distinctly articulated vertical elements visible from the raised Metropolitan Expressway (Highway 40) nearby. Its top is a double-height minimalist events space with a three-sided panoramic view of the city and which is penetrated by a large double-curved glass funnel that captures rain water. “Water and fire,” states Gauthier, “are totemic elements for Cirque and Lalibert wanted both present; so in addition to the funnel, we also installed a smokeless fire pit.” Visible from rue Jarry and from Highway 40, the events space and its funnel combine to become a signature beacon, particularly at night when lit from within. Along its south internal side, the mezzanine is enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass which, when subject to an electric current, realigns its crystals to become a high-tech projection screen. When used with ceiling projectors, potentially dazzling shows of light and images are presented to motorists and passersby below.

Although Gauthier’s project incorporates various green building innovations, including soy-based “asphalt” for the parking lot and triple glazing with two low-E layers on the tower, the building is not LEED-certified. “Frankly,” he states, “the green-level elements we commonly use in our projects ought simply to be considered as the basic standards for all projects.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Montreal world headquarters must operate, perhaps paradoxically, as both a well-oiled production machine and a centre of chaotic creativity. Gauthier has successfully continued to expand, with thoughtful variations, an environment that handles both exacting requirements extremely well. CA

Rhys Phillips lives in Ottawa and has been writing on architecture and urban design for over two decades.

———

Client Cirque Du Soleil

Architect Team ric Gauthier, Marc Paradis, Dominik Potvin, Franois Verville

Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Les Consultants Gemec

Interiors EXA Design

Contractor J. E. Verreault Co.

Area 5,575 M2

Budget$10M

Completion 2007

X