Checking in with Quebec

Winter is architectural awards season, and this year, I was asked to participate as a juror for the Ordre des architectes du Québec (OAQ)’s awards. The jury meeting, held in Montreal, provided a welcome opportunity to take measure of the state of the profession in la belle province.

If the submissions are a representative measure, architectural production over the past two years has been healthy in Quebec. The jurors winnowed 187 submissions to a shortlist of 57 projects, from which we selected nine winners and a Grand Prize champion.

The ongoing Charbonneau Commission inquiries into corruption in the construction industry are in the backdrop of any conversation about architecture in Quebec. Public work has been affected in myriad, often indirect ways. Amidst the OAQ award winners, this was most clearly felt in the Hôtel de ville de Montréal project, which garnered a prize for restoration. The finely detailed copper cladding and stone ornamentation of the monumental roof was completed over a prolonged 11-year period, largely due to the doggedness of architects Richard de la Riva and Gavin Affleck, along with a dedicated team of skilled craftsmen and heritage specialists at the municipal and provincial levels. During that time, the project’s general contractor declared bankruptcy–and right under the eaves of the construction site itself, four executive committee chairmen cycled through the second seat of power under former mayor Gérald Tremblay. In the face of this upheaval, Affleck and de la Riva provided continuity of vision to the project team, resulting in an exquisitely detailed restoration.

Affleck+de la Riva's restoration of the Htel de ville de Montral recently won an OAQ award of excellence in conservation. Alain Laforest
Affleck+de la Riva’s restoration of the Htel de ville de Montral recently won an OAQ award of excellence in conservation. Alain Laforest

Tight institutional budgets were palpable in many projects, where in some cases, they resulted in strategic architectural decisions to focus design efforts in selected areas, to positive effect. However, the projects that rose to the level of design excellence recognized by awards were generally those with plumper budgets. The Bibliothèque Raymond-Lévesque, located on a suburban site in St-Hubert, resulted from a highly successful ongoing program of design competitions for municipal libraries, won in this case by Manon Asselin of Atelier TAG with Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes in consortium. A budget of $12.3 million for the 4,000-square-metre building allowed for an intelligent deployment of the program, structured around an outdoor reading courtyard and incorporating sculptural rainwater retention basins.

Generous budgets were also evident in a series of public galleries sponsored by private patrons, a phenomenon last felt in Quebec with Phyllis Lambert’s leadership in creating the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and with Daniel Langlois in founding the Excentris cinema and performing arts centre. Two award winners–Centre Phi, by Atelier in Situ with Shapiro Wolfe and Fondation Guido Molinari by _naturehumaine–are architecturally ambitious adaptive reuse projects created, respectively, through the funding of Minto Group co-owner Phoebe Greenberg and the estate of artist Guido Molinari. One hopes they thrive in contributing to the city’s vibrant contemporary arts culture.

While Quebec boasts one of the most evenly distributed income spreads in the country, a significant share of the province’s wealth resides in the hands of a select upper class. This wealth was evidenced in the strong showing of single-family home submissions in the current cycle, many of which were secondary residences. Alain Carle’s Les Marais was one of several stunning projects by the architect that demonstrated a continuing maturation of a distinctive Quebec style that combines timber structure, landscape integration, and crisp geometric forms.

Partially because of linguistic barriers, Quebec continues to remain relatively insular as a design culture within Canada. OAQ president Natalie Dionne told me that the Examination for Architects in Canada (ExAC) originated as an OAQ initiative spurred by NCARB’s decision to cease administering a French language exam. However, some of the province’s most successful architects are those who have ventured outside of Quebec. Witness Saucier+Perrotte Architectes, whose Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia landed the Grand Prize for Architectural Excellence. One hopes that the ExAC and plans for reciprocity ease the movement of interns and licensed architects across provincial lines, further spreading Quebec’s strong architectural values throughout Canada.
Elsa Lam