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Saul Bellow, an integrated design library

by Louis Destombes, published 2014-05-20
The expansion of Saul-Bellow Library was subject to a design competition in 2011, the first of its kind to insist on an "integrated design process". Three years later, while Chevalier Morales' winning proposal is under construction, it is interesting to review the way the architects responded to the challenges presented by the use of this qualitative process that exploits vastly different means.

In 1984, the City of Montreal decided to honour famed Canadian and American author Saul Bellow by naming the public library in his home borough of Lachine after him. The building was finished in 1975, one year before he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Years after his death in 2005, the borough planned a project for the expansion of the library, augmenting the surface by more than 80% to total 2600 m2, simultaneously changing the way the library functioned as well as its capacity. The main objective was to give the library an "innovative image" which has come to be expected of "21st century libraries", knowing that the existing building needed to be conserved and integrated into the new building. The project is part of a larger trend in Quebec, in a decade rich with new public library projects. Beginning with the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec competition in 2000, no less than 13 library design competitions were organized in the subsequent 13 years, producing some 140 projects.

The organization of the Saul-Bellow Library competition distinguishes itself from this long list of prior competitions for a number of reasons, including an unusually high number of teams selected to compete - 7 teams, 3 of which were consortia, whereas the average for this type of competition is 4 competitors. The jury adopted a scoring system, weighted according to the judgment criteria, in order to rank the numerous competitors, with the winner accumulating the most points. Another notable particularity of the competition is the request for an integrated design process (I.D.P.) from the onset in order to ensure consistency between the environmental requirements, the goal to attain LEED-Gold certification, and, of course, the architectural quality in the development of the project. The program stipulated that the winning proposal would be improved after the competition in a dialog process involving all relevant stakeholders. The competitors needed to convince the jury of the strength of their proposal, as well as its openness to integrated design. Even though this aspect of the competition was more or less important to each competitor, it certainly influenced the judgment insofar as "the potential for the evolution of the concept in the future with regards to I.D.P." was one of the seven criteria, counting for 25% of the grade along with the "flexibility of the planning".

In spite of these unusual constraints, the question of the integration of the existing building into a new one produced remarkably varied architectural responses. Certain teams, such as Faucher, Aubertin, Brodeur, Gauthier (F.A.B.G.) or Atelier In Situ, relied on the addition of a prominent roof to ensure the unity of their proposal. Others, such as the Labonté Marcil, Cimaise-FBA and Éric Pelletier consortium, presented a project based on the existence of an articulated facade that encompassed both the old and the new. A handful of projects proposed of a volume around the existing volume, such as Dan Hanganu and Chevalier Morales, who both favoured the expression of a suspended box, whereas the Manon Asselin and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte (J.L.P.) consortium, as well as Brière Gilbert and Blouin Tardif, presented partially opened forms. The jury report reveals that in a first round, three projects were eliminated based on arguments related to their architectural quality - a lack of articulation, unnecessary complexity of circulation, or even the inadequacy of the architectural approach. F.A.B.G.'s project was eliminated in the second round, deemed too costly and "difficult to rationalize" despite a particularly developed concept that had earned a high score. Chevalier Morales' project, deemed "flexible, nonrigid" and "responding to criteria without formal dogmatism", was declared the winner in terms of points, ranking above Manon Asselin/J.L.P. and Brière Gilbert/Blouin Tardif, whose projects offered simpler spaces with less interesting interior circulation.

While reading the jury report, one could imagine that the project is rather banal and sober which is not the case. From the outside, the new building asserts its presence with a suspended and partially cantilevered volume, as well as its elegant profile forming a contemporary signal. The way the volume of variable thickness is sometimes treated as a technical area and sometimes as a liveable space demonstrates the team's ability to play with perception of scale in order to create a building integrated into its urban context. Inside, these architectural devices define autonomous spaces while ensuring transparency and continuity in plan and in section through the use of hoppers, mezzanines and double heights. This volumetric and spatial work is complemented by the building's envelope, which is at times a curtain wall, and other times a translucent screen whose development holds the potential for a rich tectonic expressiveness. The project's approach, quality of spaces and architectural language are clearly expressed without being too rigid, which resulted in a winning strategy. This strategy is also apparent in Chevalier Morales' other recent proposals, for the schemes developed were successful in winning other competitions.

Implementing the I.D.P. process allowed the jury to consider projects more openly, keeping in mind the subsequent step where the winning project would go through the necessary technical adjustments. Despite using a quantitative evaluation system based on a specific assessment scale, the potential of the architectural approach to achieve LEED-Gold certification, and the respect of the budget were evaluated, for in the jury report it is clearly stated that "the I.D.P. represents an effective tool to meet these requirements". This freedom clearly had an enormous impact on the judgment process, as the jurors were able to focus on "potential" architectural qualities (as the L.E.A.P. researchers are fond of saying) of each proposal. Postponing the technical aspects tied to the construction of the project until a post-competition stage helped raise the level of discussions in terms of architecture, albeit leaving unresolved the aspect of effective economic and ecological constructive solutions for the building process. The question remains to understand if the subsequent I.P.D. discussions related to the improvement of the architectural solutions proposed in the competition context, without systematically questioning their pertinence?
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