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What life after death? A competition to rebuild the church of Saint-Paul in Aylmer

by Nicholas Roquet, published 2014-08-20
Organized in 2009 by a Catholic parish in the Gatineau neighborhood of Aylmer, this recent one-stage competition aimed to develop ideas for the reconstruction and re-use of a late-nineteenth church that had been gutted by fire. While it attracted only nine proposals by Canadian architects and little media exposure outside the Ottawa-Gatineau area, it is noteworthy both for the quality of the winning entries and for that of the jury, three members of which are nationally renowned heritage experts. More importantly, the competition results offer an unusual perspective on architects' current attitude towards ruined cultural heritage. Should one leave it as it is? Should one restore it to its original state? Or should one take advantage of a catastrophic event in order to rethink the monument otherwise?

While relatively rare, this type of intervention is a powerful indicator of how approaches to architectural conservation evolve over time. When the campanile of St Mark's in Venice suddenly collapsed in 1902, architect and restorer Luca Beltrami famously exclaimed: "Dov'era, com'era." In his view, Italy had no choice but to rebuild the structure exactly where it stood before, in strict accordance with its original appearance. Likewise, when Notre-Dame cathedral in Quebec City burnt down in 1922 (only the outer walls were spared), architects Raoul Chenevert and Maxime Roisin undertook to rebuild the same sumptuous interior decor that was first created in the eighteenth century.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the extent of destruction and especially the rise of architectural modernism led to other, more restrained solutions. For instance in Coventry, British architect Basil Spence chose to leave the walls of the medieval cathedral in a state of ruin, as a memorial to the martyrdom endured by the city during the Blitz. To accommodate worship, he erected nearby a new nave with a reinforced concrete structure and sandstone facades (1962).

This mixture of respect and distance toward historic monuments also characterizes several modernist architectural projects in Canada--most notably the reconstruction of St Boniface cathedral in Winnipeg (1972) and that of the Sacré-Coeur chapel inside Notre-Dame basilica in Montreal (1978). Each of these projects presents destruction by fire as an irreparable break in the life of the monument. In St Boniface, Étienne Gaboury erected a smaller church over the former chancel, but left the remainder of the ruined cathedral open to the sky--thus turning the original nave into an immense and solemn antechamber. In Montreal, architects Jodoin Lamarre Pratte faithfully recreated the Sacré-Coeur chapel's carved woodwork, but without its original polychromy. Above, they then suspended an austere wooden vault to protect--without touching it--the reconstructed decor. Stripped of color and lit from above, this chapel seems more a vestige than a living place of worship.

Unlike the examples discussed so far, the church of Saint-Paul is neither a major religious monument nor an architectural landmark. Nonetheless, both the competition's premise and its results clearly suggest that a new approach to religious heritage is emerging. Indeed, in contemporary Quebec, to rebuild a church has essentially become a problem of scale and use. How does one adapt the vast interior of a traditional church to the very modest scale of present-day religious practice? If worship is made to coexist with other more mundane uses, how then does one reconcile the church as architectural sign with its reality as a place? And since a church becomes a building like any other when it is stripped of its sanctity, how does one maintain it as a focus for the community? At Saint-Paul, all competitors were confronted with these issues, for the brief required them not only to develop a formal strategy for rebuilding, but also to imagine new uses for the future.

Treating the church walls as an available, neutral envelope, architects Brault/Lapointe Magne (winning project) proposed minimal interventions on the outside but major changes within--reshaping the church's interior by inserting in it bold new volumes. In the nave, a wooden hull suspended from the roof and hovering above the floor creates a space for intimate worship. Thanks to its variable configuration, this can also be used as a venue for theater or concerts. Lodged in the chancel, a four-story silo-like structure contains building services as well as community and rental spaces.

Architects Labonté Marcil (2nd prize) relied on an opposite strategy. Here, it is above all the intervention on the surrounding landscape that determines the site's meaning and new collective purpose. Largely re-used as a public library, with a small space set aside for worship, the church opens to the east onto a large, festive plaza, which features a stage and sloping lawn-like auditorium as well as a public market. This institutional block is completed at one end by a new apartment complex facing the street.

The most radical questions, however, are raised by architects Jodoin Lamarre Pratte (3rd prize). While the other winning entries seek to recreate the original church's massing, Jodoin Lamarre Pratte exalt the ruins' spectral quality by wrapping them in steel mesh. The main access to the building is provided by a ramp that slopes down to new public spaces located below ground. In the stories above, the promenade takes the shape of suspended platforms and walkways that jut out into the empty space of the nave. Most significantly, while the scheme suggests a wide range of possible uses inside the building, none are fixed to a specific location. Here, worship becomes but one potential event in a transparent and wholly visible public space.

None of these winning entries is fully developed, and all refrain from transgressing late-nineteenth-century church typology, with its bell tower, gabled roof and axial layout. Nor will they ever be actually built, because the instability of the masonry and the high cost of reconstruction led to Saint-Paul being completely razed shortly after the competition. But even viewed as imaginary schemes, these proposals contain many challenging hypotheses that will eventually need to be tested. After all, a great number of churches elsewhere in Quebec are likewise fated to be closed to worship, either wholly or in part.
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