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Covering a stadium without retraction

by Bechara Helal, published 2014-04-30
We will have to wait until 2019 before the recurring problem of the Montreal Olympic Stadium could potentially be fixed. Could a new retractable flexible canvas be the solution, or a fixed, traditional roof? What if the stadium remained roofless? And what if the whole building needed to be demolished in order to solve this problem that some now consider a dead end? While engineers debate these questions-come-political-issues, architects explore the constructive problem of massive spans in sport stadiums by means of architectural design competitions.

A two-stage competition, organized by the city of Montreal in 2011, aimed for the construction of a municipal soccer complex in the Villeray/Saint-Michel/Parc-Extension borough on the western perimeter of the Complexe environnemental de St-Michel (CESM). The program of this 12,700 square meter project included two soccer fields, one indoor and another outdoors, serviced by connecting servant spaces (lobby, bleachers, locker rooms, multipurpose room, amongst others). Of the thirty competitors who submitted proposals in the anonymous first stage of the competition, the jury selected four teams to proceed to the second stage: Saucier + Perrotte/Hughes Condon Marler Architectes, Éric Pelletier/GLCRM, Côté Leahy Cardas/Provencher Roy Associés Architectes, and Affleck de la Riva Architectes/Cannon Design.

The competition program identified three major "challenges" that the future stadium needed to address: the "architectural expression" (volumetric concern, treatment of the long walls, relationship with the street and the site), the "structural challenge of an unobstructed span over the playing field", and the "principles of a sustainable sport-oriented architecture that integrates into the CESM park" (the LEED-NC Gold standard was used as a measure of sustainable development performance). This editorial examines the way these challenges were addressed by the competitors, with a particular emphasis on the architectural figure of the roof.

First, let us consider the "architectural expression" aspect. The competition program goes beyond the traditional problem of architectural composition by mentioning the idea of "architectural identity": the building should absolutely project a "strong image". These terms are found more than once in the jury's comments on each of the second stage proposals. A volumetric analysis of the thirty first-round proposals reveals a clear division into two categories according to the general formal scheme of the projects: the "volume" type buildings and the "roof" type buildings. The former are buildings that appear as monoliths containing the entirety of the interior functions, whereas the latter appear as elongated elements that cover the functions without necessarily containing them. Some proposals are situated at the cusp of the two categories, as is the case of the entries by Atelier Pierre Thibault Martin and by Marcotte/Bienhaker, for example, in which a "roof" type building folds onto itself to become a "volume" type building. The formalization of the "roof" style buildings varies greatly. Thus, some can be identified by the strong expression of their upper section, as is the case with the non-planar surfaces of Cardin Ramirez Julien and Thibodeau Architecture + Design's proposals. In other projects, the roof is not limited to a simple surface but becomes a floating volume that integrates functions into its thickness. This is the case in such projects as Labonté Marcil/Bourgeois Lechasseur or Ruccolo + Faubert Architectes. Overall, there is an equal number of projects of each type both in the first and second round. If Éric Pelletier/GLCRM's and Côté Leahy Cardas/Provencher Roy Associés Architectes' projects fall into the "volume" category, Saucier + Perrotte/Hughes Condon Marler Architectes' and Affleck de la Riva Architectes/Cannon Design's proposals are definite "roof" type projects. The jury comments clearly reveal a preference for this last category. Thus, the roof is immediately seen as a "strong image" (comment on Affleck de la Riva Architectes/Cannon Design) "with a simple and strong identity" (comment on Saucier + Perrotte/Hughes Condon Marler Architectes). On the contrary, the jury qualifies one of the monolithic project volumes as a project "whose identity lacks character" (comment on Éric Pelletier/GLCRM) and questions the architectural reading of the other: "this concept is ambiguous on a volumetric level, regarding the guiding principles that generated this form; is it a shell or a box with four different sides and a roof?" (comment on Côté Leahy Cardas/Provencher Roy Associés Architectes). One could conclude that "roof" type buildings responded better to the question of "architectural expression", regardless of the quality of the projects' architectural solutions.

The concept of the roof is directly tied to the "structural challenge of an unobstructed span over the playing field" as stressed in the competition's program. How to architecturally design a roof capable of spanning a soccer field? The buildings in both aforementioned categories envision vastly different solutions. As shown in the sections, the roof over the playing field is envisioned by the first category more as a technical problem: Côté Leahy Cardas / Provencher Roy Associés Architectes' project details a complex constructive composition, while Éric Pelletier/GLCRM consider it a simple large-spanning roof without further detailing it in the presentation documents. Quite the opposite, in the "roof" type buildings, the roof is developed in a more expressive manner, a sort of interior fifth façade. Both teams presenting such proposals push this approach of architectural composition to a level of detail that includes reflected roof/ceiling plans. For Affleck de la Riva Architectes/Cannon Design, the aforementioned plan is akin to an abstract graphic work of art, whereas for Saucier + Perrotte/Hughes Condon Marler Architectes, it is used to simultaneously express the complexity and aesthetics of the structural concept, left visible in the project.

Let us now consider the notion of "sustainable architecture" mentioned in the program. Numerous competition juries assign what may seem like a disproportionate amount of importance to the LEED-NC Gold standard. This is not the case in this competition, where the LEED-NC standard was barely mentioned in the jury's comments. In reality, the jury does not see the notion of "sustainable architecture" only as a materialization of the technical requirements, but also as an integration of the building within the existing context of the park of the CESM. Here too, the "roof" style buildings have an advantage: they are perceived as horizontal, floating above the ground and thus not conflicting with the park. Better yet, Saucier + Perrotte/Hughes Condon Marler Architectes' proposal shows a strong intention of fluidly linking the floating roof and the ground: the presentation documents explain that the roof is not simply a floating plane but a result of a delamination of a layer of the ground itself following a folding (pliage) operation.

"A pavilion in the park, with a simple and strong architectural identity" is the way the jury qualified the winning project, from the team comprised of Saucier + Perrotte and Hughes Condon Marler Architectes. Although qualifying a project of 12,700 square meters as a "pavilion" may be somewhat surprising, this description emphasizes the impression one can have of a building that can be summarized by the simple, light and solid figure of its roof. If, in the case of the Olympic Stadium, the roof is seen today as a problematic element materializing the crisis, or even the ruin, of a radical architecture, in the case of the future CESM soccer complex it should be seen as the very heart of an adventurous and integrated architecture.

Finally, we should highlight two unusual conclusions drawn by the competition's jury. On the one hand, as was the case for the Saint-Laurent sports complex competition in 2010, and as Jean-Pierre Chupin mentioned in his editorial on the competition (November 2012), the jury decided to publish not only a winning proposal but also a list of recommendations to the winners that they consider to be "essential to the development of the project". This highly unusual double operation enabled the jury to assume a more complete role in the design process than is normally seen in a design competition. On the other hand, in addition to naming a winner, the jury awarded a special mention to Éric Pelletier/GLCRM, thus recognizing the quality of the architectural ideas of a non-winning project. The history of architectural design competition is rich with projects that, while not being identified as winners, yet deserve this level of appreciation, either for the quality of the design solution they propose or for the relevance of the disciplinary questions they raise. The fact that the jury report ends with these unusual conclusions reminds us that the architectural competition should not be solely seen as the means of selecting a solution to a given problem, but also as a process of collective construction.
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