Taming the Leviathan: Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal

Love it or hate it, no-one in Montreal can ignore the new Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal—the CHUM. It is gargantuan, all three million square feet and two full city blocks of it. It is distinctive, with a massive curtainwall façade of variegated hue. And, perhaps most admirable of all, it is built, finally, after decades of political squabbling over its location and cost. Known by its acronym—pronounced shoom—it has come to fruition as a public-private-partnership, a P3—that damnable process spreading across the country, seemingly invented for the benefit of politicians and contractors and the detriment of architecture.

CHUM, Montreal
Embedded in the CHUM facade is “La vie en montagne,” 
by Mathieu Doyon and Simon Rivest, one of 13 public art works integrated into the project. opposite Stairway and public space near the Sanguinet Street entrance.

The P3 design process (or “PPP,” as they call it in Quebec) too often offers little opportunity for critical design intent, let alone design excellence. The CHUM team have grappled with tremendous logistical challenges—starting with the requirement to stuff three million square feet into the heart of downtown Montreal. That in itself was a mandate that many Montrealers had disagreed with from the get-go, but that’s what the architects were handed. The project still receives sotto voce flak for its gargantuan presence, but that was a given: it’s hard to imagine an architectural team that could cram that much square footage on two city blocks without a zero lot line on a good part of its perimeter, as the CHUM has. And, to be sure, its Viger Avenue façade reads as a glass fortress wall. But it could have been much, much more intimidating.

“We addressed this proposition head on, understanding that within the PPP process, we have to identify, develop and maintain as many ‘moments’ as possible at as many scales as possible,” says Andrew King, one of the project’s lead architects on the CannonDesign team. “This is with the hope these will converge into a good building.”

CHUM, Montreal
Stairway and public space near the Sanguinet Street entrance.

King, who has since moved on to Montreal-based Lemay, knew that size would be the biggest challenge. “We applied critical design methodologies almost immediately to develop strategies for massing and scale and composition,” he says. Part of that methodology was to break down the massing from a conceptual starting point of a huge, imposing, solid block into three discrete towers.

CHUM, Montreal
The street-level view from rue Saint-Denis. At left is a partial 
view of the reconstructed 1865 Holy Trinity steeple; straight ahead 
is the portion of reconstructed rectory facade inside the lobby.

Fitting in the necessary programming of a 772-bed hospital compelled the team to devise alternate ways of using conventional hospital space, says Azad Chichmanian, who led the NEUF team. “We were able to convince the ministry, for example, that in a fast-track process it would be okay to put two doctors in one office, because they’re never there at the same time.” CannonDesign architect Elizabeth Rack (now with Perkins+Will) devised a strategy for eliminating the need for laundry and garbage chutes: automated carts gather the sheets and trash throughout the hospital, saving precious space. “Technically we were non-compliant,” says Chichmanian; the chutes had been a requirement. “We had to argue that the robotic carts could fulfill the role instead.”

CHUM, Montreal
Looking up to the ceiling of reconstructed church spire.

And then there is all that glass, everywhere. “One million square feet of curtainwall, which is crazy in itself,” allows Chichmanian. “We had to find a way to make this building not feel like a typically intimidating, opaque hospital in the way that Quebecers see all the other hospitals.” The glazing on the Saint-Denis side is the most transparent, allowing the outside world a long view into the main lobby and reception area. “The interface on Saint Denis is very much the public space,” says Chichmanian. The CHUM is built on the former site of, among other structures, the 1865 Holy Trinity Church. The church is now obliterated, but by official mandate its steeple lives on, dismantled stone-
by-stone and rebuilt in the cutaway corner of Saint-Denis and Viger Avenue, which serves as one of the hospital’s entrances. The reconstructed steeple is wonderful: you can step inside and be surrounded by it, breaking the sense of being in an officious healthcare facility for a few restorative minutes. A few metres away is the other “heritage” component: a reconstructed portion of stone wall from the centuries-old Maison Garth rectory. It ostensibly provides material continuity with the steeple, and streetfront engagement with the passers-by on rue Saint-Denis who see it through the glass. But what reads as a heritage building that you behold through a glass vitrine is in reality just the 
illusion of a building, an element that feels like a deception when you walk inside and see how little there is left of it.

CHUM, Montreal
The Maison Garth façade as seen from inside the lobby.

Elsewhere, the ubiquitous glass facade is tinted, partly for privacy and energy savings, and partly to break up expansive planes of glass with variegated hues. The extensive glazing brings a generous amount of daylight into the hospital, but at a higher cost than many more opaque options. Jocelyn Stroupe, who led Cannon’s interior design team on the project, argued for the qualitative benefits of daylight, providing the P3 consortium with published research documenting the faster healing times—and, as a bonus for the bean-counters, cost savings—that correlate with patients’ access to daylight.

CHUM, Montreal
The passerelle, an elevated staff walkway that provides a shortcut between two of the buildings. For staffers, its walls project a constellation of pinpoint light by day, from the outside in. At night, it’s the reverse: interior artificial lighting projects dots of light to passers-by below. Photo by Karine Savard.

Ah, but what about the maintenance of that transparency? When 
I visited the CHUM, mere days after its official opening last November, the glass façade already looked dirty and cloudy in parts. A senior designer on the CHUM project attributed the glass façade’s initial dirtiness to squabbling among unions and other players over who would pay for the cleaning—a tiff whose continued lack of resolution will now require a more expensive professional re-buffing.

CHUM, Montreal
Looking down from the 25th floor to the sculpted lawn shapes of the eighth-floor rooftop terrace.

CHUM, a rising Leviathan, is growing even larger now: construction is under way for the final phase, schematically designed by the CannonDesign-NEUF team and scheduled for completion around 2021. For this next phase, the massing will be more open, with ground-level public space around a lozenge-shaped amphitheatre, generating a structure more truly integrated with the street and the wider public.

CHUM, Montreal
Conceptual sketch by Andrew King of planned final massing, with lozenge-shaped amphitheatre surrounded by open public space.

“The next phase is where the project gives back to the city,” says King, “through a public plaza and human scale amphitheatre, as well as the ultimate reconfiguring of the public realm within and outside the building. The CHUM’s identity will emerge here, we hope.”

The P3 juggernaut has handed this final phase over to a different consortium, led by Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes/Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux and Pomerleau Contracting to carry it out. The plan is to follow the CannonDesign-NEUF concept to create an open, integrated, street-friendly face for what could otherwise end up as an architectural behemoth.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

CHUM Montreal | Credits: Client Construction Santé Montréal | Architect Team CannonDesign: Jose Silva, Andrew King, FRAIC; Elizabeth Rack, Christine Cavataio, Jocelyn Stroupe, Gustavo Lima. NEUF architect(e)s: Azad Chichmanian, Jean François Trahan, Chris Ilg, Lilia Koleva, Jean-Louis Léger, Allen King, Simon Bastien, Nicolay Boyadjiev | Heritage DFS Architecture & Design | Structural Pasquin St Jean | Mechanical HH angus, Roche | Electrical HH angus | civil Groupe SM | Landscape NIP Paysage | Interiors annonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s | Contractor Construction Santé Montréal | Area 278,709 M2 | Budget $2 billion | Completion Fall 2017

Photos by Adrien Williams, except as indicated.