TEMPLE OF MUSIC

PROJECT PALAIS MONTCALM AND SALLE RAOUL-JOBIN, QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC

ARCHITECT M.:U. S. E. CONSORTIUM (L’ARCHITECTE JACQUES PLANTE; LES ARCHITECTES BERNARD ET CLOUTIER; ST-GELAIS MONTMINY, ARCHITECTES)

TEXT TANIA MARTIN

PHOTOS BENOT LAFRANCE

Having once contained many dynamic performing-arts spaces, Quebec City has witnessed several well-known and highly valued performance venues close their doors over recent years. Some of these venues were religious buildings, each offering its own acoustic qualities: for instance, the Chapelle Historique Bon-Pasteur, which shut down six months ago, and the former chapel of the Mother House of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, which hosted a significant number of amateur and professional musical groups before closing down. Quebec City has no shortage of religious spaces, but it also has a number of historic buildings–religious or other wise–seeking new viable functions. And so, it was with great celebration that after four years of renovations, the Palais Montcalm reopened in March 2007, giving an important concert hall back to Quebec City.

Situated just outside the Old City, Palais Montcalm is the anchor of Place d’Youville, the site of the former Montcalm Market, a public market partially destroyed by fire that was originally built in 1877 outside of the historic St. John Gate. Completed in 1932, the municipally owned Palais was based on the design of Ludger Robitaille and Gabriel Desmeule who attempted to incorporate what was left of the original market structure into their design. The Art Deco building originally contained offices, a library, a swimming pool (disused since 1986) and a 1,300-seat hall decorated in a Neoclassical style. In 1940, the CBC had offices in the building and used the concert hall and its recording studio for live music broadcasts and radio programs up until the early 1990s. The building’s design is based on a tripartite faade featuring a strong base and cornice, with a large marquee identifying the main entrance.

Popular among Quebec’s French-Canadian music lovers, the City-owned Palais Montcalm rivalled the YMCA across the street as a respectable venue for live concerts before falling into disuse. But in 1971, the long-anticipated Grand Thtre de Qubec opened its doors up the hill on the Grande Alle. Celebrated as a state-of-the-art facility, the Brutalist concrete building took with it the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and a theatre troupe. Compared to the Grand Thtre, the Palais Montcalm proved mean and crowded; its poor sightlines and outdated Neoclassical dcor reduced it to a second-rate performance venue within the city. Nevertheless, rather than let developers turn the building into a casino-hotel, municipal authorities maintained that the future of the Palais Montcalm should build upon its past and uphold its tradition as a concert venue, although it ultimately took nearly 40 years to upgrade the facilities to an acceptable level.

Looking at the building from Place d’Youville, little on the exterior faade indicates change, save for the colour of the window frames. The ashlar-faced building continues to present a sober front to the urban square remodelled some years prior, and acts as a backdrop to events taking place on the monumental staircase and plaza, much like a church on a square. Other elevations tell a different story. Two enormous wood screens wrap the sides of the five-storey building, hiding a hodgepodge of concrete-block accretions containing emergency stairs, mechanical rooms and a loading dock, all added over the years to extend the life of the building. The exterior screens help to restore an image of monumentality to the building, as does the apse terminating the end of the music hall along the narrow rue Dauphine. It is here that the major intervention to the building occurred: for the second time in the building’s history, it seems that new wine was placed in old bottles.

Architectural consortium M.:U. S. E. (Jacques Plante Architect, Les Architectes Bernard et Cloutier, St-Gelais Montminy Architectes) worked closely with acoustic engineer Larry S. King of the New York-based JaffeHolden, the acoustic consultants also responsible for the reputed Salle Franoys-Bernier of the Domaine Forget in Charlevoix. The consortium’s acronym stands for Mission: Urbanit Scnographie Espace–or urbanity, stage design and space. Their mandate, as set by the City of Quebec and the provincial Ministry of Culture and Communications, was to insert a new music hall within the shell of the old building.

Design architect Jacques Plante drew on his award-winning theatre design experience to create multiple gathering spaces within the grand front hall rising up through the centre of the building. Inspired by Art Deco organizational principles, he turned the main ground-floor staircase around 180 degrees, rebuilt symmetrical lateral stairs leading to the landings and gangways that double as foyers on the upper levels. Here, concert attendees can see and be seen mingling in the three-storey mirrored wall mosaic Cantate by Rose-Marie E. Goulet or taking in the night-time views of the square below, the multilayered vista of St-Roch, the suburbs, and the Laurentian Mountains beyond. Eggshell-painted walls and brushed steel handrails contrast with the original chandeliers, terrazzo floors and new dark plush carpets placed outside the entrance vestibules of the main concert hall to absorb sound. In several places throughout the building, relatively minor interventions were made. In the smaller, 125-seat double-height multifunctional caf/cabaret rehearsal and performance space, Plante removed the columns thus increasing flexibility of use. He refreshed those spaces that now contain the cloakroom and ticket counter, bistro, VIP lounge, dressing rooms, and the administrative offices of the Palais Montcalm and Les Violons du Roy, which can be found in the former concierge’s apartments on the fifth floor.

In order to obtain an optimal interior volume for superior acoustic performance, the architects had the back wall and roof of the existing building demolished rather than add a sixth storey as indicated in their competition drawings. They also decided to excavate under the main hall, thereby maintaining the height of the pre-existing building while preserving the sightlines from the ramparts of the walls enclosing the Old City. The reconfigured facility means that concert-goers can enter the parterre at ground level rather than walk up a flight of stairs as they had to do before the renovation. To enhance the building’s acoustic properties, the designers filled the spaces between the new concrete structure and existing masonry walls with volcanic sand, thereby eliminating any air pockets. High-density wood panels were then applied to the interior face of these monolithic walls. Strategically placed and finished in both glossy and matte finishes, these dark-stained maple-veneer triangular panels alternately advance and recede from the interior surface of the wall, providing just the right proportion of reverberation and sound diffusion. Other acoustic performance challenges to overcome included the enormous balcony and the proscenium stage of the original building which were replaced with multiple balconies–including ones that wrap around the back wall. Each of the padded wooden seats has clear unobstructed views onto a semi-circular red oak stage surrounded by buffers angled to redirect the sound to the rear of the hall. Even empty seats absorb and reflect sound as if occupied by human bodies. Soundabsorbing curtains can be partially or completely drawn around the hall, or stowed away in pockets within the wall. A movable stage canopy with an integrated lighting system can be lowered or raised to deflect or absorb sound. These and other features allow the hall’s technicians to “tune” the space as one would a stringed instrument,
thus guaranteeing performers the right proportion of reverberation and sound absorption depending on the type of music, number of musicians, or use of artificial amplification. Indeed, every element in the hall contributes to the quality of the sound, which is so clear and defined that it is almost palpable. These moments of silence can be evocative. And more whimsically, Florent Cousineau’s playful red neon light installation on the exterior of the apse, Le fil rouge, appears to dance to the sounds played inside.

Despite its 979-seat capacity, the main concert space, named Salle Raoul-Jobin, feels intimate. Musicians and audience easily find communion; their music instills awe. Perhaps designers and acoustic engineers can draw inspiration from this veritable temple of music and work toward continuing the useful life of some of Quebec’s other cultural and religious buildings so that the province’s built heritage can be appreciated by future generations.CA

Tania Martin is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Laval University. She is also a Canada Research Chair in Built Religious Heritage.

CLIENT VILLE DE QUBEC

DESIGN TEAM JACQUES PLANTE, STPHANE LANGEVIN, PIERRE-ANDR LVESQUE, PATRICE HARVEY, JOCELYN PERRON, RAYMOND BOUCHER, CHRISTIAN BERNARD, DOMINIQUE ST-GELAIS

PROJECT TEAM JACQUES PLANTE, CHRISTIAN BERNARD, DOMINIQUE ST-GELAIS, KARINE FOURNIER, PHILIPPE BLAIS, JACQUES BERNIER, RAYMOND BOUCHER, STPHANE LANGEVIN, JOCELYN PERRON, ANDR PELLETIER, ANDR DAGENAIS

STRUCTURAL BPR, GROUPE-CONSEIL

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL ROCHE LTE, GROUPE-CONSEIL

ACOUSTICS JAFFEHOLDEN ACOUSTICS

EQUIPMENT AND THEATRE CONSULTANTS GO MULTIMDIA

BUDGET $23 M

COMPLETION MARCH 2007

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