The Vertical Field

PROJECT University of Sherbrooke, new Longueuil campus, Longueuil, Quebec
ARCHITECTS Marosi + Troy, Jodoin Lamarre Pratte, Labbé architectes en consortium
TEXT Ricardo L. Castro
PHOTOS Marc Cramer

The new satellite branch of the University of Sherbrooke just outside of Montreal in Longueuil, Quebec, illustrates a current construction trend among institutions of higher education, namely the building of satellite campuses. It also exemplifies a cunning and imaginative way of choreographing a difficult program. The project received a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 2007, and in 2011, the Jury’s First Prize and the Prix d’excellence from the Ordre des architectes du Québec.

This new satellite university complex is located in Longueuil, a city separated from Montreal by the St. Lawrence River. Designated by the City of Longueuil to become a new academic centre, the university campus is located in a sector of the city intended to become Longueuil’s new downtown.

Responsible for the design and development of the project was the consortium of three Montreal-based architecture firms: Marosi + Troy architectes, Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et associés architectes, and Labbé architectes. These three firms have created an architecture that succeeds on many levels and which encompasses ecological, sensorial and symbolic architectural aspects, not to mention a number of societal and functional constraints. It is worth mentioning here that another similarly successful project, the Université de Montréal campus in the city of Laval was also designed and developed by the joint venture of Marosi + Troy and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et associés, in collaboration with the Laval-based architecture firm of Giasson Farregut architectes.

Both the Longueuil and Laval campuses follow the precedent of Quebec City-based Université Laval, which established its Montreal campus in 1878, and later became the Université de Montréal in 1919. Elsewhere in Canada, there are other odd situations where the satellite campus has been successfully realized. In British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, which is based in Burnaby, a city located just east of Vancouver, has established satellite campuses both in downtown Vancouver and in the nearby and actively growing municipality of Surrey.

In recent years, the rapid development of online communication technologies has only furthered the possibilities of distance education. When coupled with the swift and intense growth of transportation hubs on urban peripheries, it is not surprising to see a significant boom in branch campuses across North America. The purpose of these branch campuses is to attract students who have difficulty accessing traditional venues that deliver higher education due to geographical, financial, family and other constraints. Peripheral nodes of urban transport provide ideal locations for branch campus developments, given the large numbers of individuals who circulate through them during their daily journey from suburban to more central city areas, and vice versa. Furthermore, there are the economic incentives for private- and public-sector developers who consider the opportunity to build satellite universities as catalysts for new developments in outlying urban areas.

At the University of Sherbrooke in Longueuil, the architects confronted tremendous challenges from an unusually tight but functionally attractive site. They were able to recreate the operational and experiential qualities found in a traditional campus while concentrating those qualities into a glassy high-rise building complex. This resulting “vertical field,” as it were, contains airy interior spaces beautifully orchestrated to provide a sense of comfort and orientation. From the choice of indoor materials such as glass, wood and matte-finished dark steel, to the skillful articulation of details such as guardrails, flooring and curtain walls, the architecture of the project speaks of care and attention to craft throughout.

The academic building is essentially a two-phase project encompassing 52,000 square metres of multidisciplinary facilities large enough to accommodate 2,500 students, faculty and staff. The first phase includes 40,000 square metres required for the stacking of three underground parking levels for 500 cars, along with a two-storey podium that is topped off with a 14-storey tower. The second phase will eventually be built atop the south side of the podium, and will provide another 12,000 square metres of floor area.

The variety and complexity of the program becomes evident after studying the different functions and departmental requirements from diverse faculties, namely law, business administration, computer science, education, engineering, physical education, social sciences, theology, music and medicine. The built program also required additional areas for other institutional partners, commercial venues, and a wide variety of spaces ranging from classrooms and student meeting rooms to leased space.

One of the project’s most important design features is the 1,100-square-metre public atrium developed in partnership with the City of Longueuil. More than an atrium, this space can be considered a reinterpretation of a traditional European arcade, an ideal place for flâneurs. Running along the west side of the podium, the atrium is a full two storeys in height and serves as a buffer zone that connects the entrance to the university with the building’s commercial areas, along with the bus and metro terminal areas to the south and west respectively. The atrium extends out to Place Charles Lemoyne on the north end of the site–an open landscaped area at the centre of this new university precinct under development. Hopefully, it will one day become a truly public open space.

At the ground level, the building’s podium houses various commercial spaces, while its second storey is a kind of ambiguous threshold space that separates the academic areas above from the commercial and public zones below. This level also serves as a grand entrance to the campus itself. As clearly stated in the architects’ brief: “Rising up from the main entrance of the university, the ‘vertical campus promenade’ is conceived as a six-storey vertical volume containing public stairs as well as open and glazed public spaces which interpenetrate with the horizontal university spaces at each level. Conceived as a solution to spatially interlock the tower and base together, it is a dynamic pedestrian promenade of stairs and platforms linking the entrance hall upwards to Level 6, encompassing the major teaching and classroom levels of the campus. This interconnection of these main public and teaching levels is developed as a vertical, almost Piranesian space which transforms midway at Level 3 to interlock with the rooftop oasis garden. At this level, the space acts as a ‘vitrine’ or proscenium opening onto this oasis, wherein the expressive geometries and topography of the garden and the glazed wall interact to create a ‘folded garden.’ Meeting rooms and student common rooms are clustered within this space on each level, intensifying the activity and underlining the dialectic of the vertical and horizontal campus.”

The rooftop garden, located on the southwest quadrant of the project, has been designated as an “oasis,” perhaps because it acts as an antidote to the harsh quality of the immediate surroundings. This is one of the project’s pièces de résistance, which provides meeting opportunities and solace similar to a Japanese garden. A very significant element of those gardens is the use of borrowed distant views – otherwise known by the Japanese term of shakkei. H
ere, this condition repeats itself innumerable times as one ascends the open stairs, revealing the Port of Montreal, the roller-coaster structures of La Ronde amusement park, the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and most majestically behind it all, Mount Royal. The best place to take all of this in is in one of the two-storey public lounges, which protrude out of the building at different heights on all façades. These lounges are effective spatial devices conceived to foster interdepartmental relationships within this newly conceived vertical campus.

The rooftop or “oasis” also serves to establish and symbolically express a new institutional presence within an indifferent territory. In this satellite campus, the architects attempt to create a symbolic link with the main campus in Sherbrooke (located roughly 150 kilometres to the east) through the creation of an artificial topography made of articulated wooden surfaces and platforms, enhanced with areas planted with trees and various plant materials that correspond to those found in the Sherbrooke region. At a sensorial level, the organic materiality of the rooftop is a welcome feature that contrasts positively with that of the playful building envelope comprised of several types of glass and metal. Finally, at the ecological level, the architects use a series of strategies to minimize the project’s environmental impact and energy consumption. Among them, the most relevant features are geothermal heating and cooling, natural ventilation systems, high-efficiency glazing and envelope design, rainwater harvesting, and lots of natural lighting strategies.

Projects of this type will hopefully encourage wider public access to and participation in higher education. The University of Sherbrooke satellite campus in Longueuil appears as a powerful precedent for the design of future ventures in this field, and is ultimately a fine example of a comprehensive and holistic approach to architecture. CA

Ricardo L. Castro is an Associate Professor at McGill University where he has been teaching since 1982.

Client Université de Sherbrooke and Ville de Longueuil
Architect Team Marosi + Troy: Martin Troy, Erik Marosi, Dominique Laroche, Carlo Rondina, Maxime Gagné, Julie Charbonneau, Michelle Chan, André Kirchhoff, Mathieu Larouche, Andrea Merrett, Katsu Yamazaki. Jodoin Lamarre Pratte: Marc Laurendeau, Louis Bellefleur, Sylvain Bilodeau, Germain Paradis, Guylaine Beaudoin, Daniel Chabot, Gérard Lanthier, Olivier Millien, Richard Beaudoin, Charles-André Gagnon. Labbé Architectes: Eric Labbé, Kim Lacroix, André Gagnon, Alexandre Pereda
Structural S.M. Consultants Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical Dessau Inc.
Landscape Schème (Philippe Lupien, Philippe Nolet, Alain Loof)
Project Management CIMA+
Contractor Pomerleau Inc. (Lot 1); EBC Inc. (Lot 2)
Code Technorm
Vertical Transport Exim
Acoustics Legault & Davidson
Glass Engineering Verre Structurel CPA, Benoit Cloutier
Area 40,000 m2
Budget $115 M
Completion January 2010