The Science of Space

Founded in 2001, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is an independent resident-based academic organization devoted to exploring topics like quantum gravity and string theory. This young institution opened a brand new $24.5-million home in October 2004. Constructed over an old landfill on the edge of uptown Waterloo, Ontario, the black and grey building is a striking 6,000-square-metre concrete and glass warped prism.

Perimeter, along with New College Residence and the CCIT building at the University of Toronto, marks the first work west of the Quebec-Ontario border–and the first major extra-provincial buildings by a Montreal firm of their generation–for Montreal-based Saucier + Perrotte architectes. In J.B. Jackson’s seminal 1953 essay “The Westward-Moving House,” the geographer poetically argues that as the frontier moved west, emerging social values and construction techniques fundamentally changed the American home. Moving west in Canada holds similar promise for Perimeter’s designers. “You have to build elsewhere to know who you really are,” said principal Gilles Saucier. “It’s the first time we were able to give ourselves that kind of freedom of expression.”

Perimeter is a university building, but one without a campus or a building tradition to harmonize with. The first task, then, was to find appropriate symbols that link architecture to theoretical physics. According to Saucier, our perception of the striking south faade is designed to mimic the experience we might have when confronting esoteric scientific discourse. Ventilation grilles and window openings framed with mirrors punctuate the surface of black anodized aluminum panels, creating a faade whose image changes with different lighting and weather conditions. At first we might be baffled by the envelope’s complexity, but then we can always “make an effort” to understand the design.

The next task involved creating a setting for Perimeter by manipulating the natural topography. In response to the almost urban location–bounded by a busy highway, a tranquil artificial lake and a parking lot–the design capitalizes on the image of a sculptural object in a park. However, since well-used pedestrian pathways separate the building from Father David Bauer Drive and Silver Lake, the actual terrain near the building symbolically recreates the broader landscape. A long reflecting pond on the north side thus imitates Silver Lake–and pragmatically acts as a buffer between joggers on the path and thinkers in their offices. Since the water table is high, there is no basement. Instead, a grass-covered concrete berm rises up a full story, creating a base for the building and marking the north entrance.

Echoing its name, Perimeter is indeed a series of perimeters or layers. Conceptually, the designers drew an abstract line in the middle of the site, thickened it into a wall, widened the wall further into an inhabitable zone, and then further still into two private blocks separated by a public zone. The south block houses administration, the north research offices. Glass planes, sometimes transparent, and sometimes serigraphed with abstract patterns, delimit each interior edge of these four-storey blocks. The ground floor gives public access to a 205-seat lecture theatre, a library, and an external courtyard. Overhead, floating concrete staircases animate a full-height atrium. Three bridges allow researchers and staff to travel between the north and south blocks. The bridges extend slightly beyond the faades, opening views out into the surroundings.

The client asked for various degrees of formality in the types of teaching spaces. The architects responded with a formal lecture hall in the north block, and a stack of seminar rooms in the south. At the points where the bridges re-enter the research wings from the atrium, the designers created more informal areas equipped with chalkboards and sometimes fireplaces. In an effort to make common spaces that encourage researchers to linger and exchange ideas, these lounges are lined with white oak–warm spots of colour in an otherwise cool grey building. For similar reasons, ip wood envelops the top-floor bistro and roof deck on the north block.

Arguably these design moves have a lot in common with other recent Canadian academic architecture. So is it really fair to suggest that Perimeter might represent a peculiarly Montreal way of conceiving architecture? The speculation arises partly because Perimeter shares a parking lot with that touchstone of contemporary Canadian architecture, the Canadian Clay & Glass gallery, which was completed by Patkau Architects in 1993. The only nod to the gallery, however, is in the alignment of the Institute, which sits at a crisp 90 degrees to its neighbour. Certainly in terms of architectural intentions, they could not be more different. The Clay & Glass gallery vaunts tectonics, the expression of construction, and the articulation of materials; Perimeter blazons “an expression of space” rather than of detail, a modulation of surfaces rather than their assembly. This is not to say that details are unimportant. “You want things built to perfection,” said Saucier, “but to your perfection, not a generic perfection.”

Quintessentially Montreal or not, Saucier + Perrotte’s work is difficult to appraise equitably. Their polished compositions are so modishly elegant that detractors readily dismiss the buildings as mere echoes of superficial trends. Perimeter’s resident researchers, for example, are housed in 44 stacked, cantilevered boxes facing north over Silver Lake. This north faade recalls many well-known recent projects, such as MVRDV’s 1997 Amsterdam housing, or Eric Gauthier’s 2003 residence for the Cirque du Soleil in Montreal. For Saucier + Perrotte, however, the boxes find their rationale not in shallow fashion-mongering, but deep within their architectural philosophy: a will to symbolize–however literally–the individuality of the researchers, to use innovations in building technology to refine the expression of space, and to experiment with ways of controlling climate. The last is especially crucial. “In our climate there are many things that can interfere with our experience of nature,” said Saucier. A small innovation can make a big difference. The use of overhead radiant heating, for instance, leaves each office’s floor-to-ceiling, glued-glass window (each includes an operable unit) unencumbered by heaters like those needed in the glass bridge they designed for Montreal’s Cinmathque qubcoise in 1997.

Nevertheless, despite these obsessions with climate and nature, space and symbol, it remains Saucier + Perrotte’s grand control of pictorial effects that gives Perimeter its sense of place. Is there not something undeniably important about making buildings that convey powerful images? Saucier himself argues well for the idea that clients and users have to take the time to understand and live with the individuality of the design. “You can recognize our signature,” said Saucier. “It’s that signature that makes it not just a generic building.” In other words, is it not precisely because Perimeter is such a recognizable object that it creates the conditions of belonging: an identifiable home for the community of researchers and a landmark for its neighbourhood?

David Theodore is Research Associate and College Lecturer at the McGill University School of Architecture.


Client: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Architect Team: Gilles Saucier, Andr Perrotte, Audrey Archambault, Anna Bendix, Andrew Butler, Trevor Davies, Dominique Dumais, Maxime Gagn, Jean-Louis Lger, Laurence LeBeux, Christine Levine, Eric Majer, Sergio Morales, Quinlan Osborne, Pierre-Alexandre Rhaume, Guillaume Sasseville, Samantha Schneider, Sudhir Suri

Structural: Blackwell Engineering Limited

Mechanical: Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Electrical: Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Civil: Stantec
Consulting Limited

Landscape: Saucier + Perrotte architectes

Contractor: Eastern Construction

Acoustics: Acoustics Engineering Ltd.

Area: 64,000 ft2

Budget: $24.5 million

Completion: September 2004

Photography: Marc Cramer unless otherwise noted