ARCHITECT Atelier Big City
LOCATION Montreal, Quebec

U is the third project developed over the years in relation to the Unity Building, a historic property situated on Paper Hill in Montreal. It is a 77-unit housing project, with mixed commercial and professional spaces on the lower levels, and an important urban courtyard space. U is inspired by diverse Montreal typologies: the deeply set-back entrance evokes Montreal’s typical porte cochre and helps articulate a proper sense of arrival, comprising a drop-off, parking entry, and the principal access to offices on the lobby mezzanine. A three-storey-high gymnasium space is situated above the entry hall, with 30 small studio apartments grouped around this vertical atrium. An exterior courtyard contains the circulation for the upper eight floors of the building.

The morphology of the new building responds to that of the Unity building and Unity 2. The alignment of the cornice is respected, and the entrance is reminiscent of the tall double-height lobby of Unity 2. U offers varying views up and down rue de la Gauchetire as it bends along the St. Jacques ridge.

The envelope is an interpretation of a contemporary curtain wall. Floor-to-ceiling windows of mullion-free glazing, with coloured glass spandrel panels and Stanstead granite vertical piers, seamlessly hug the faceted form.

An architecturally sensitive issue, the faade of the new project distinguishes itself clearly from its neighbours while addressing their architectural characteristics subtly and significantly. Great care is taken in developing a particular relationship with the Unity Building. An architectural reveal is created at the junction between the two buildings that follows the advancing and retreating movements of the new faade, revealing at times the red brick and concrete frame of the Unity Building.

As a vertical city, this project is structured upon the transformative qualities of the inner courtyard typology. A four-storey-deep service core is located in the parking spiral, and a two-storey “mall” space contains the lobby, business centre, and commercial heart of the project. The first three floors of studio apartments surround the gym/atrium, while the majority of residential units are organized around the outdoor terrace/ circulation spine.

Extending out from the courtyard faade is a staccato sequence of light wells, privacy screens and handrails arranged in such a way that daylight can penetrate deep within the courtyard, and the boundaries between public and private domains are maintained.

The project emphasizes quality, and the generously sized apartments feature imported fixtures, pre-fab kitchens, closets and door units to create fluid interior environments.

JC: It is often very difficult to push the boundaries in high-density multi-family projects. This project excels in all aspects, from the formal resolution of the faade to the innovative unit planning and stacking, resulting in the sophisticated resolution of urban infill.

AK: The high-density commercial housing project is an enigma within architectural history. Moments of brilliance have emerged from what is generally considered a context for, at best, unrealized potential, or worst, fodder for the marketplace. Creating excellence within this context demands thoughtful strategies and a cunning sense of priority. This project is a superlative example of what can happen when a talented design team has a mature understanding of typology and context in addtion to the making of commercially viable housing. As such, it creates an intensely interesting faade that is tied to unit amenities, a compelling and powerful entry sequence and a complex series of shared public spaces. The project creates its own opportunities and then exploits them in a very mature, convincing and rigorous way.

JL: This is a truly outstanding design–intelligent, careful, and spare–grammatically correct keeps coming to mind. The variegation of the front elevation is a four-for-one story, relating the contemporary with the heritage, offering individual identity within a larger whole, which gives an urban edge and an exegesis of curtain-wall potential. The fact that the architects convinced the developer to do an interior courtyard and a primarily single-loaded corridor proves their commitment to pushing a high-level architectural goal with every project.

Client Federico Bizzotto
Architect Team Howard Davies, Randy Cohen, Sebastien St. Laurent, Traian Dima
Structural Silverio Marzin
Mechanical/Electrical Blondin Fortin
Area 90,000 ft2
Budget $9 M
Completion TBD