Upholding Tradition

Bibliothque Municipale de Chteauguay, Chteauguay, Quebec

atelier TAG with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes

Certain architectural commissions are more inspiring than others. For instance, unless under exceptional circumstances, the design of an office building or a shopping centre is so overdetermined that the architect often finds his role reduced to that of mere executor at the developer’s service. At the other end of the scale, the architect asked to design a house, even if bound by his client’s whims and wishes, usually enjoys a great amount of freedom and has the rewarding sense that his design will significantly shape the life of the homeowner. The drawback in this instance–apart from the uncertain profitability–is the private character of the project: it will have little public impact.

The design of a library for a small municipality is among those commissions which can bring together a good deal of architectural freedom and the feeling of accomplishing a public act. Libraries in smaller cities indeed play a crucial civic role. Perhaps more than the town hall which is too closely associated with authority, the library and municipal theatre creates a decisive cultural moment, a hiatus in the economic and commercial existence.

At the library of Chteauguay in Quebec, a wide glass wall discreetly positioned at the right of the main entrance, functions as a cabinet for the display of the more precious holdings. Amidst a few rare illustrated editions from Quebec’s literature sits a series of large, carefully bound books in which are collated the thousands of petitions filed by the population of Chteauguay to appeal for provincial funding to construct the new library. The impressive volumes bear witness to the years of efforts that were required to get the project off the ground, and bespeak the extent of the population’s direct involvement in the project. Chteauguay, a south-shore suburb of Montreal, fell prey to the urban sprawl that started in the 1970s. Yet no new civic building was erected for thirty years. There was thus a real urge felt among city officials to make a cultural statement, and to establish a new architectural quality as a symbol of renewal in a community largely structured around tract housing and shopping strips. The site retained for the library is nestled in a cluster of municipal services buildings that make up a rather undistinguished grouping adjacent to the town’s major commercial artery. Luckily, the cluster has at its centre the small Honor-Mercier park that provides just the right breathing space for the library. When the financing was finally secured in late 2000, the City decided that the architectural commission would be awarded through an open competition, a two-stage process encouraged by the Quebec Ministry of Culture1 and approved by the Ordre des Architectes du Qubec2. A good number of Quebec’s ambitious young firms entered this architectural contest (there were no fewer than 60 entries for the small project), which was followed closely by the newly elected Mayor of Chteauguay, Sergio Pavone, and the Director of the library, Cline Lussier, with the general population maintaining a keen interest. Following a summer-long competition, the award was announced in October 2001. The construction began the following summer, and the building was completed in late autumn 2003. So this modest library commission was the product of a series of discrete actions, triggered by a few individuals with vision and ambition, and backed by a concerned population. The era of patronage may long be over, but the ability of individuals using basic democratic procedures to establish auspicious opportunities for architecture remains. Chteauguay is not Bilbao. And the town’s remarkably elegant library will not draw hordes of tourists. But it has nonetheless created a real sense of urban pride, the only defense against thoughtless urban development and blind real estate logic.

The Montreal consortium selected from the four finalists3–atelier TAG (architects Manon Asselin and Katsuhiro Yamazaki) and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes (who offered technical support)–seems to have understood from the start the important civic role that the building was to play. Its scheme was titled Pierre Leve (Raised Stone), after the key element in the front elevation: a wide expanse of roughly hewn stone suspended high above ground that signals monumentality. Asselin and Yamazaki were inspired by Chteauguay’s few historical monuments spared by suburban sprawl: clearly defined buildings made of simple load-bearing masonry.

Today, the most common application of masonry is as a thin sheathing where the depth of the traditional load-bearing wall is lost. The Chteauguay library is no exception, but the architects have laid the stone with mortar, correctly preserving its scale, mass and texture. What results is the appearance of a “bearing” wall suspended in mid-air, rather than a mere rain screen hung on brackets. Despite the very strict budget, this feature was kept throughout the design process, because the client group focused on its crucial symbolic importance from the outset.

In fact, the raised stones form only one moment–albeit an iconic one–in the unfolding of a fairly complex and dynamic play of volumes that make up the overall library experience. The building consists of a large box in front of a smaller box, slightly shifted, from which a low one-storey wing juts perpendicularly at ground level on the park side. The larger volume is sheltered in stone, faces the entrance and is raised on pilotis. It contains the book collection on two levels with a series of small reading spaces excavated from the rows of stacks. The narrower glass box opens up through a large window to the park on the west side. It contains all major circulation elements including the library’s main spatial feature–the oblique hall on the second floor that serves both as a general browsing area and as a children’s corner. This large, entirely glazed space with a stepped floor offers an unhindered view of the park thanks to a huge concrete beam spanning the full length of the exterior wall. Not only are the two main volumes shifted in relation to each other, but distinct spaces jut out at various places in each volume, resulting in a dynamic experience on the exterior of the building. Areas of carefully detailed glass contrast with the heavy stone face at the front which stirs memories of past monuments. In this regard, it is unfortunate that the abstract play of planes and volumes strays into the solid mass of stone at the north-east corner, detracting from its purity.

One enters the building by passing under the suspended wall of stone to reach the transparent box behind. On the left, one first encounters the entrance of the long and narrow coffee shop, then the periodicals reading room looking directly into the park. On the right, a projecting staircase rises to the circulation desk and the stacks above. Beyond, sweeping steps lead half a floor below to the perpendicular wing where a meeting room, washrooms, and staff lunchroom are located.

One of the most striking qualities of the library is the fluidity of its space, particularly at the entry level. Every room and every circulation element flows effortlessly into the next one. The oblique contour of the ceiling on the underside of the tiered hall above lends a subtle dynamism to the entry space, palpable in the canted concrete columns that surround the periodicals reading room. A series of inner lightwells afford unexpected diagonal views, and adds to the lively interpenetration of spaces. The park landscape undulates around the building, and enhances the feeling of transparency. Curiously, it is upon entering what should have been the most dynamic space–the oblique hall above–that fluency is lost: after ascending the narrow ramp on the side of the hall one must weave one’s way through two sets of staircases suspended over the lobby space to reach the two floors of book stacks. These bridge staircases are dramatic elements but
the convoluted path they present is at odds with the remarkable spatial plasticity of the ensemble, and the spell is broken. The oblique hall itself, one side opening beautifully on the park, has not yet found the use that will do justice to the bold architectural move it represents.

Setting off the library’s spatial fluidity is the extraordinary luminosity that pervades all the major spaces: the very elegant periodicals room (oddly furnished with “period” furniture); the caf; the circulation desk; the study spaces; the office spaces–particularly the director’s office, suspended in mid-air at the north-west corner; the meeting rooms; and even the small lunchroom for the staff. Every room conveys this lightness and openness that is so deeply a characteristic of modernism. The architects have brilliantly exploited the small park, bracketing out the worst sights of the surrounding area, offering only views of the sky, trees and distant prospects. A punctuated series of overhangs minimizes the glare. Naturally, the openness of the space and the hard surfaces require a certain concession in acoustics. But municipal libraries are not just about quiet reading–they are meeting places and public spaces that welcome a certain level of noise.

Such a cosmopolitan piece of modernism might seem alien in the midst of the city of Chteauguay; especially if, coming from Montreal, one has travelled through the hinterland of the Mohawk community of Kahnawake. But should architecture entirely surrender to context, or can it be an enhancement? It is obviously the latter more idealistic route that the architects of the city of Chteauguay chose to travel. High modernism may not be entirely indigenous to Chteauguay, but the library plays its role of transfiguring everyday life remarkably well.

Martin Bressani is an Associate Professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.

1 When the Chteauguay competition was launched, the policy of mandatory architectural competition for projects receiving grants of over $2 million from the Qubec Ministre de la Culture et des Communications was not yet officially in place.

2 The jury comprised the following individuals: Sergio Pavone, Chair and Mayor of the City of Chteauguay; Ginette Leclair, Engineer and Director of Service de Gnie et Dveloppement Urbain, City of Chteauguay; Cline Lussier, Head of Division Bibliothque, City of Chteauguay; Raymond Sauv, Landscape Architect; Marie-Chantal Croft, Architect; Jean-Pierre Chupin, Architect and Associate Professor at the Universit de Montral; Anne Carrier, Architect. The Observer for the competition was Diane Dupr, Ministre de la Culture et des Communications du Qubec, and the Professional Advisor was Philippe Drolet, Architect.

3 The four finalists were atelier TAG with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes; Emond Kozina Mulvey Architects; Birtz Bastien Architects et Associs; and NOMADE Architecture.

Client: City of Chteauguay

Architects: atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associs Architectes

Architect Team: Manon Asselin, Katsuhiro Yamazaki, Tom Yu, Marc Laurendeau, Denis Gaudreault, Michel Nantel, Julien Fantini, Olivier Millien, Sylvain Morrier

Graphic Design: Pawel Karwowski

Structural: Dessau-Soprin

Mechanical: Dessau-Soprin

Electrical: Dessau-Soprin

Landscape: atelier TAG

Interiors: atelier TAG

Contractor: Gerpro Construction Inc.

Acoustical consultants: Jean Pierre Legault Acoustique

Area: 2600 m2

Budget: $5,500,000

Completion: November 2003

Photography: Marc Cramer unless noted