Sound of the City

Project Mcgill University Schulich School of Music, Montreal, Quebec

Architect Menkes Shooner Dagenais/Saucier + Perrotte Architectes

Text Rhys Phillips

Photos Marc Cramer

An enduring architectural aphorism is Goethe’s enigmatic comment, “I call architecture frozen music.” While an apt starting point for considering McGill University’s new Schulich School of Music, design architect Gilles Saucier is uncomfortable with what he considers the phrase’s static implications. “There is nothing frozen about architecture,” he argues, “a building must always be viewed within the dynamic relationship of object and user.” Saucier much prefers to articulate how the School is more about perception of landscape, a theme embedded in so much of the firm’s work.

Dominating a prominent corner of rue Sherbrooke, one of Canada’s most elegant avenues, the School first appears as a deceptively simple slab wrapped in a cryptic if rich collage of materials. But in this downtown building, the architects have first executed a careful reading of the site’s urban geography as well as its underlying geology, and then bent function into form to create a three-dimensional jigsaw block with each puzzle piece artfully displayed on its surfaces.

Three characteristics of the site helped define how the building had to work in the public domain. First, rue Aylmer on its eastern flank ascends from the city below, shifts sharply to the east at rue Sherbrooke, then cuts north across Plateau Mont-Royal. This displacement, according to Saucier, suggests a confrontation with a sort of tectonic plane marking the edge of both the mountain and the university.

Second, the eclectic Strathcona Building, McGill’s original music faculty to the west of Schulich, is set well back from the street. In front of steep amphitheatre-like steps and dominating the resulting open space, a statue of the grand dowager Queen Victoria holds court gazing over her urban realm. Southeast exposure ensures students and faculty already congregate on the stairs by early spring. This meant pushing the building toward Sherbrooke to act as a protective, defining wing for this already successful public square.

In addition, a pronounced curve on Sherbrooke ensures visual prominence when approached from east or west. As a result, depending on the direction approached, the building signals the beginning or end to the campus. “It acts,” he explains, “as a gate, not just in two dimensions but as a very strong volumetric element to the city.” A second-level connection between the old and new buildings was then established through a green glass bridge that not incidentally signals passage into a less public triangular courtyard wedged between the two structures.

With the building’s urban role defined, the architects tackled the ambitious program envisaged by Don McLean, the school’s engaging and dynamic dean. Requirements centered on three discrete although interrelated functions. These included the traditional pursuits of creation and performance but with both interacting with cutting-edge research to be carried out by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT). In addition to a digitally wired music library, faculty offices, and a public performance studio seating 200, CIRMMT required research labs such as an anechoic chamber and dedicated space for perceptual testing, critical listening and performance motion capture.

But the heart of the School was to be a mammoth, five-storey-high scoring and multimedia chamber able to accommodate a full orchestra and choir as well as a smaller opera and voice studio. A digital audio control room was also required to serve both. It was essential to have these spaces acoustically isolated with complete avoidance of sound and vibration pollution.

To respond to this key requirement, Saucier invokes the ideas the partners explored in their installation at the Venice Biennale in 2004. There, “we presented the idea of the found object, something you discover on the site that gives you a definition.” Anyone familiar with Mont-Royal will understand that it too is a sort of found object. This picturesque, three-peaked knob is one of several outcrops on the St. Lawrence Plain called the Monteregian Hills, created when liquid magma seeped into the earth’s crust, crystallized into hard gabbro, and was exposed by the erosion of softer materials.

At the school, this geological history became the basis for a poetic narrative. A monolithic concrete box within a concrete box (separated by neoprene pads to isolate vibrations) was placed at the back of the site along Aylmer, sunk three storeys below ground. The ceiling of this new geological bedrock emerged as “a new artificial ground plane” elevated two floors above the street but rooted deep into the mountain’s flank. “This block is like a large object that has always been there but the earth around it has been slowly eroded until it is partially exposed becoming the rock on which we have keyed the project.”

Atop the chamber, isolated on legs, is a second towering box containing the building’s mechanical units. In order to control noise levels, ventilation ducts must have large diameters to reduce the speed of air movement. Placing the mechanical unit in one full-height box at the back of the building avoids mechanical shafts and, therefore, allows narrower pipes to enter directly at each floor.

The third three-dimensional puzzle piece of the tower is a six-floor block fitted partially over the scoring stage and in front of the mechanical tower. This element accommodates the three-storey library that is brought forward to engage Sherbrooke through a fully transparent wall. “With its triple-level glazing opening up its white interior,” maintains Saucier, “the library becomes this white object within a grey container.” Above are two storeys of offices topped by a penthouse floor containing the CIRMMT studios and music research labs. Laminated along this tower’s western flank and facing the courtyard is a narrow slab of a box containing elevators. Isolated from the performing areas by corridors, potentially intrusive elevator noise is thus segregated.

Everything in front of and below the “new folded ground plane” of the scoring stage serves as public space. The two-storey recital hall becomes a fifth fitted-in box while the double-height lobby on Sherbrooke is a transparent public room, more an eroded void than a box. Despite its openness, this latter public space seems part of the architects’ landscape parti.

A sculpted stair of black metal rotates up on the east side of the lobby, and seems to disappear into the upper mezzanine of the recital hall, then reappears on the west. It twists up around a stout square column passing through Saucier’s artificial ground into the library. An optical illusion suggests one must scramble through a narrow opening to arrive above ground. The way it appears and disappears through the layers only reinforces the idea of an artificial geological landscape. It recalls, at a smaller scale, the organic circulation passage the architects envisaged flowing upwards through their impressive but ultimately unsuccessful submission for the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg.

As in most of the building, Saucier’s approach to detail in the lobby is reductionist. A spare palette of raw concrete, black metal, glass and white walls is assembled with a minimum of fuss. The overall colour sense is black, white and shades of grey. Within this neutrality, light becomes a material in its own right, capable of changing the nature of the space. For example, when fluorescent light hits the black metal, the result is a strong blue aura absent in the actual colour of the material.

Once one knows how the functional jigsaw puzzle has been assembled and how Saucier and Perrotte articulate their central ideas of landscape–real and imagined–the rich collage of the School’s exterior takes on structur
e and logic. Along Aylmer, the organizing found object is “intensely represented” by being uniquely clad in limestone. Above, the geological delaminating of the ground that reveals this defining object is signalled by horizontally striated zinc. To the south, the rank of the recital hall’s seating is expressed as a warm clay brick insert while the lobby retains its transparency.

On the courtyard side, a raw base of earth-like pre-rusted steel supports a black mirrored wall that is anything but frozen. “This side I wanted very opaque so it is a black mirror that links past and present,” Saucier explains. “A black mirror creates a depth and subjectivity for the subject of reflection and is, therefore, a perfectly modern wall while reflecting the historic building.” This wall is marked by small windows and random matte panels like a perforated piano roll, the building’s only overt musical allusion. But the way the wall’s pixellated reflection continually changes tone and colour in response to the sky, almost seeming to disappear at times, also suggests a constantly playing melody.

The Schulich School of Music is certainly a handsome, tactile urban marker, even playful in its contrast of opacity with transparency. But it also succeeds admirably at telling a story about both process and a sense of place that is a leitmotif of Saucier and Perrotte’s work. “The reconstruction of the memory of the creative process and of the memory of landscape,” they wrote about their Venice installation, “is the exhibition’s guiding thread…it is an invitation to discover and understand the specific geometries, textures, colours, and breadth of the continent we inhabit and its imprint on our creative consciousness.” The Monteregian Hills are indelible visual interruptions on the flat St. Lawrence Plain where the architects grew up. On the slope of the most famous of these “monadnocks,” they have produced a sophisticated expression of these remembered landmarks. At the same time, this rich abstraction of their geological construction becomes equally a narrative on how a building and its complex functions have been assembled.

Rhys Phillips works at the Canadian Human Rights Commission and has been writing on architecture and urban design for the past 20 years.

Client Mcgill University

Architect Team Gilles Saucier (Design Principal), Anik Shooner (Project Architect), Caroline Elias, Maxime-Alexis Frappier, Anna Bendix, Anne-Sophie Allard, Audrey Archambault, Eda Ascioglu, Patrice Begin, Catherine Belanger, Alain Boudrias, Nathalie Cloutier, Jean-Yves Couture, Robert Dequoy, Maxime Gagne, Pierre Gervais, Mana Hemami, Jean-Sebastien Herr, Yvon Lachance, Marc-Antoine Larose, Jean-Louis Leger, Josiane Mac, Andrea Macelwee, Eric Majer, Claudio Nunez, Annie Paradis, Alex Parmentier, Harvens Piou, Isabelle Roy, Annie-Claude Sauve, Sudhir Suri, Michel Thompson

Structural Saia Deslauriers Kadanoff Leconte Brisebois Blais

Mechanical/Electrical Pellemon Inc./Bpr

Acoustical Artec

Contractor Ebc Inc.

Project Management Decarel

Area 11,775 M2

Budget $31.3 M

Completion October 2005