The Ripple Effect

Project Jean-Claude Malépart Sports Centre Expansion, Montreal, Quebec
Architect Saia Barbarese Topo
Text Odile Hénault
Photos Mark Cramer, unless otherwise noted

2007 RAIC Gold Medallist Mario Saia possesses a unique gift, that of creating long-lasting relationships with his clients. The net result is that he has been able to design for various areas of his native city over extended periods of time, thus contributing to the coherent transformation of several Montreal neighbourhoods. His most significant institutional client to date is probably the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) who, over a period of roughly 30 years, worked in close collaboration with his office, turning a major downtown block located near Place des Arts into a vibrant new science campus.
Saia’s office, established in 1968, was first called Cayouette et Saia, then Saia Barbarese, and since 2002, Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes (SBTA). The firm has long been known for its quiet architectural statements and its adherence to Montreal’s muted material palette. In 2002, SBTA displayed its new colours–literally–as the Palais des congrès de Montréal reopened its doors after a major makeover and addition. Most architectural writers rejoiced at the sight of such an unabashed display of confidence, but Montrealers were rather shocked and taken aback.
However, observers of the architectural scene had begun to notice the first signs of change in the office with projects such as the Little Burgundy Sports Complex (1997). Two bold volumes, one anthracite and one red, sit on either side of a former back alley (covered over by the architects), symbolizing the area’s two black communities–Anglophone and Francophone–who were invited to settle their differences through sporting activities. The building was, and still is, a success. Architecturally, a seismic shift occurred with the introduction of anthracite, a new colour on the Montreal scene.
In the 12-year period separating Little Burgundy from the expansion of the Jean-Claude Malépart Sports Centre, SBTA became Montreal’s most daring architectural practice, unafraid of proposing strong colour schemes and playing with volumes and elevations. The most eloquent manifestation of this is to be found on the UQÀM Science Campus where SBTA worked with landscape architect Claude Cormier; the combined exceptional talent of the design team is clear.
With the Malépart project, a new vocabulary emerged. At first sight, the Ontario Street building appears as if graffiti has been splashed on three of its walls. No colour here expect for the bluish-tinted glass panes. The graffiti is premised on a wave pattern borrowed from a David Hockney painting entitled Portrait of an Artist (1972), and is reproduced using oversized bricks in two shades of grey over a white background.
Amusingly, the white brick on the façades is reminiscent of the garish community buildings constructed in the northern areas of Montreal in the 1950s. The effect on the Malépart building is playful, bordering on kitsch. Yet it does create a giant art piece, accessible to all, a move particularly welcome in this part of the city long considered as one of its toughest.
As elsewhere in the city, SBTA has been involved in this Montreal neighbourhood since the beginning of the 1980s, when they were commissioned to design a social housing scheme at the feet of two existing rental towers of ill repute. In an effort to uplift the community, City of Montreal officials had included in their social housing scheme a public library, an auditorium and an exhibition space.
Years later, in 1996, SBTA designed and built the first phase of what is known as the Jean-Claude Malépart Sports Centre. This earlier concrete building is now an integral component of the new project and, although the architectural vocabulary is quite distinct, the transition between the two phases is smooth. It is interesting to note that right from the outset, City officials had wanted to include a pool, but were unable to buy the much-needed corner lot. In time, they were finally able to purchase the land, which had to be decontaminated before the pool could be built.
The 1996 entrance off Ontario Street was kept intact; at the back, along Le Havre Street, the second phase was organized around a small exterior court, which helped reduce the bulk of the structures and allowed natural light to penetrate both buildings.
Because of Vladimir Topouzanov’s direct involvement in this project, one cannot help but compare the Jean-Claude Malépart Centre with the house he and his architect wife built for themselves a few years ago in St-Henri, another low-income area of Montreal. Their residential project features immense flowers in shades of red, buff and orange, all splashed directly on to the exterior brick walls. Topouzanov’s home served as a testing ground for the application of a flat two-dimensional motif on a brick surface, an idea which was to take on much larger proportions in the Malépart building.
The building program is straightforward and provides the locals with a facility that should have been theirs 15 years ago. It was certainly worth the wait since the pool offers such a joyous experience, not just on the exterior but also on the interior, where curved lines suggesting aquatic waves are applied to the floors and walls surrounding the semi-Olympic pool before they disappear in the azure-painted corridors leading to the reception area and the change rooms.
Until recently, the competition process, which has produced so many great buildings in Quebec–concert halls, libraries and museums–had not been applied to the field of sports. The situation is slowly changing, because SBTA and other architectural firms have proven that sports facilities are also worthy of creative design gestures.
Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes may not win all–or for that matter any–of the sports facilities competitions that might be launched in the future, but the Little Burgundy Sports Centre and the Jean-Claude Malépart Sports Centre addition have unequivocally contributed to a change for the better in Quebec’s perception and appreciation of sports architecture. CA

Odile Hénault is a Quebec-based architectural writer, and is currently editing a forthcoming book on the work of Dan Hanganu to be published by TUNS Press.

Client Ville de Montréal
Architect Team Dino Barbarese, Mélanie Bhérer, Patrick de Barros, Wassili Dudan, David Griffin, Virginie Legast, Anouck Lemarquis, Donald Marquis, Michel Rollin, Mario Saia, Yvon Théoret, Vladimir Topouzanov
Structural MLC Associés Expert Conseils
Mechanical/Electrical Les Consultants Aecom
Landscape Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes
Interiors Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes
Contractor Construction TEQ Inc.
Area 2,678 m2
Budget $7.14 M
Completion May 2010