Substance And Spectacle

PROJECT Salle de Spectacle Dolbeau-Mistassini | Desjardins | Maria-Chapdelaine, Dolbeau-Mistassini, Quebec
ARCHITECTS Paul Laurendeau | Jodoin Lamarre Pratte | Architects in Consortium
TEXT Thomas Strickland
PHOTOS Marc Gibert

The combination of architecture and the performing arts has often featured significantly in projects of civic reorganization and unification, both literally and symbolically. One public works project, L’Opra Paris (Palais Garnier) instigated by Baron Georges-Eugne Haussmann and designed by architect Charles Garnier in 1861, was planned to unify not only the new formal order of the city but the people as well; it was to be the public face of new Paris. In the 20th century, the white sails of Sydney’s Opera House, designed by Jrn Utzon in 1957, have come to symbolize the emergence of Australia as a cultural and economic force in the international arena. At a smaller scale but with as much ambition, Dolbeau-Mistassini in Quebec hopes a recently completed performing arts centre, designed by Paul Laurendeau Architecte in consortium with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et associs architectes, will concentrate its diverse and prolific arts scene in one place and represent the continuity of the recent amalgamation of two distinct cities under one governing body.

In the 1980s, the City of Dolbeau, located 300 kilometres north of Quebec City in the regional municipality of Maria-Chapdelaine, began planning a hall to concentrate the area’s extant community of folk and opera singers, musicians and graphic artists. Yet it was the 1997 merger of Dolbeau with Mistassini, a neighbouring city, and growing support from broadcasters, producers and municipal politicians that crystallized the idea into a project. In 2005, following a thorough study, a site was chosen in the former city of Mistassini and a competition call was issued for a theatre that would promote “a new coherence in spite of the heterogeneous character of the neighbourhood.” (Salle de spectacles de Dolbeau-Mistassini, Concours d’architecture, 2005).

Out of roughly 30 submissions, Laurendeau was initially selected as one of four finalists for Phase I of the project’s design competition. Before continuing on to Phase II, and after a change in provincial policy regarding design competitions, he was “encouraged” to form a collaboration with a more experienced firm that was familiar with buildings of similar scale to the performing arts centre. Forming a consortium with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte, Laurendeau’s design went on to win the commission. He is accustomed to working with the arts and design community, honing his design approach on projects such as Fashionlab (a clothing design agency) in 2001 and DESERT for the collective Champ Libre in 2004 (see CA, November 2004). While the Dolbeau-Mistassini Salle de Spectacle represents a shift in complexity and the architect’s first foray into theatre architecture, the design shows a confident merging of the client’s program requirements and institutional agenda with Laurendeau’s design approach.

Laurendeau believes that the principles of geometry and proportion are fundamental to the design of a building. “Symmetry,” he explains, “induces a relationship with others; it becomes a shared language.” Beginning with the golden section, a ratio of purportedly divine proportions connected to Vitruvius and found in Le Corbusier’s Modular Man, Laurendeau executed an extensive study of significant 19th-century architectural treatises combined with a geometric analysis of the Dolbeau-Mistassini program brief. Such historical allusions aside, the building, according to Laurendeau, is not revivalist. The formal geometric arrangements also accommodate programmatic and operational requirements while providing a principle around which contractors can coordinate.

Laurendeau’s successful proposal was in plan and volume a close match to the Management Committee’s organigramme–the functional requirements of the proposed theatre. The procession follows a symmetrically arranged central axis beginning with the entrance on Avenue de l’glise, passing through the foyer, lobby, auditorium and ending on the stage. While this arrangement might seem obvious and even simple in plan, it is a considered solution to the community’s requirement for a significant amount of space in the centre of the building to be used as a meeting hall for clubs and events. Importantly, the foyer’s multi-purpose role is established through movement in and out of the space, which occurs on all four sides. On one side is a grove of trees concealed from Avenue de l’glise by an early 20th-century section of Saint-Michel School; later additions were demolished to create space for the theatre. When fully grown, the green grove of trees will starkly contrast the spare and polished foyer offering a themed scene, enticing writers and composers to reflect upon the space.

Laurendeau has used contrast to effect in the Salle de Spectacle. In the auditorium, which also corresponds to the golden section, the seating is arranged in the shape of a drum, the only round form in the building. Taking full advantage of this shape to emphasize the height of the auditorium space, Laurendeau explains that he has structured the balconies to “provoke verticality and vertigo.” This impetus combined with the seats’ bright red fabric and gold balcony faades defines a palpable distinction between this room and the rest of the building. Occupying the drum’s cardinal point is an enormous circular chandelier, carrying hundreds of lights, which ignite the rich colours. Before a performance begins, the lights are dimmed and the elaborate fixture rises to the ceiling to consolidate the transformative potential of the theatre, signalling the drift from ordinary to imaginary.

On the street, the simple boxy form of the metal-clad theatre sits innocuously behind the elevation. Recalling the golden age of the music hall, the marquee-like faade offers the promise of a revitalized commercial district, and speaks to Dolbeau-Mistassini’s hope for a collective identity. Laurendeau explains that, “as an icon the building has to sustain its function.” For the designer, however, it is not the role of architecture to provide meaning; it is the community, he believes, that will bring significance to the building. Laurendeau’s approach concentrates on the object itself, bringing together principles of geometric order and a history of building typology that create a stage for community identification and articulation. After all, he notes, “It is their building.” CA

After a period of time working as an architect, Thomas Strickland is undertaking a doctorate in the history of medical architecture, considering in particular the influence of pop culture in the 1960s and ’70s on innovative, space-age hospital design. He is an occasional art curator and published critic.

Client City Of Dolbeau-mistassini
Architect Team Paul Laurendeau, Marc Laurendeau, Denis Gaudreault
Structural Dessau Soprin
Mechanical/electrical Roche Lte
Landscape Paul Laurendeau | Jodoin Lamarre Pratte | Architects In Consortium
Interiors Paul Laurendeau | Jodoin Lamarre Pratte | Architects In Consortium
Contractor Unibec Inc.
Theatre Consultant Go Multimdia
Acoustics Legault & Davidson
Signage/graphics Uniform
Area 2,630 M2
Budget $9.2 M
Completion October 2008