Siren Call

Thtre Espace Libre, Montreal
Lapointe Magne et associs

Thtre Espace Libre typifies the current challenges facing architects designing institutional buildings in Montreal. With a modest $3.2 million budget, Lapointe Magne et associs had to transform a historic fire hall on a tight corner site into new office, rehearsal and performance spaces. The result boasts deft planning and an expressive use of materials and colour, all efficiently encased in a simple modernist box slipped in behind the historic faade. “I don’t think we have a style,” said project architect Michel Lapointe, “we just try to answer the needs of the client and the space where the building is located.”

With many institutional projects, clients have little experience designing and constructing buildings. “When we work with them, it’s often the first time they do a building,” said associate Frderick Dub. According to Lapointe, Espace Libre wanted to maintain especially the “feeling and characteristics” of the 1903 fire hall which it has occupied since 1981. That fire hall is a small but important landmark in an old working-class neighbourhood just east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge. It is surrounded mostly by residential three-storey triplexes, but across the street are the parking lot and bulky towers of the former Parthenais jail, recently renovated–quite successfully–into a green-glass office building.

The hitch in the project is the issue of faadism. A crucial earlier project for Lapointe Magne was their prize-winning 1992 addition to the McCord Museum. It set a new agenda for renovation projects in Montreal because of the careful respect shown the existing building, the former McGill Student Union building designed in 1906 by Percy Nobbs. For Espace Libre, though, most of the fire hall was demolished. What’s left are the hose tower, the party wall, the front faade with its three stone arches, and part of a brick side wall containing staircases. “There is a pragmatism to it; we had no budget for restoration,” said Dub. Conceptually, the architects instead worked to maintain the “recognizability” of the fire hall. Lapointe adds that there was little inside to conserve: the new theatre “is a technical building, like the fire hall, just a container,” Lapointe said.

Still, with Montreal undergoing a mini-building boom, its stock of cast-off civic buildings and churches are particularly vulnerable. It’s a little distressing to see that Espace Libre continues the trend of letting Montreal’s fine tradition of fire halls disappear under the banner of modernization. Ironically, however, the success of Lapointe Magne’s work will likely be cited in the future to justify other more deplorable demolitions.

The new addition doubles the size of the theatre. The architects added one floor under-ground, used for storage and public bathrooms, and one floor above, which accommodates offices and two rehearsal rooms that can double as performance spaces. The main theatre fills the entire ground floor. As a flexible, multifunctional hall, there is no fly tower or fixed seating, nor even a lobby. Indeed, the performance space is accessible both from the street through the former garage doors, and from a new entrance at the side of the building.

In a clever mimicry of Montreal domestic traditions, each of the three major tenants-Espace Libre, and two resident companies, Le Nouveau Thtre Exprimental, and La compagnie de mime Omnibus–has its own entrance on the street. These doors lead to a band of stairs that rises the full height of the building along the side street. The stair block is covered in a saw-tooth shaped curtain wall filled with textured glass panels, which wraps around the back of the building. The architects used a site-poured concrete bearing wall structure, left exposed whenever possible. “The client didn’t want the addition to be too ‘design-driven’–which we eventually realized meant they wanted it not too polished,” said Lapointe.

What the client did want was community, continuity, and character. So the architects made the second floor kitchen a communal space shared by all the resident organizations. For continuity, in addition to keeping the faades, the architects created some benches and other furniture from beams recuperated from the demolition of the fire house. And finally, they added contemporary brio with elements such as the distinctive public toilets in the basement: glass walls, stainless steel counters and frosted glass enclosures make for a memorable, voyeuristic, intermission.

Outside, the building’s new third storey is set back from the main faade, and capped with a cantilevered roof that juts out over the brick-faced top storey of the fire house. The architects intended to hang a metallic mesh curtain from the roof (see CA, Dec. 2001, p. 20), tying together the new penthouse and the old faade. But with the tight budget–the theatre has no major corporate sponsors–it was an obvious ornament to jettison. What the theatre thus loses in photogenic chic it gains in robustness. Thtre Espace Libre is, in fact, a quite frank, even exuberant juxtaposition of old and new clearly at home in the city.

Client: Espace Libre

Architect team members: Michel Lapointe, Benot Forcier, Donald Marquis, Patrice McInnes, Christian Desmarais, Alain Desforges, Richard Szczawinski, Stphane Rasselet, Frdric Dub, Michle Mallette, Rnald Caron

Rendering: Christian Desmarais

Structural/mechanical/electrical: GEMEC

Interiors: Lapointe Magne et associs

Acoustics: Octave Acoustique

Art installation: Guy Pellerin

Area: 2095 m2

Budget: $3 million

Completion: August 2002

David Theodore is a regional correspondent for Canadian Architect.