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An Elegant Modernism to the Rescue of an Obsolete Postmodernism

by Jean-Pierre Chupin, published 2018-04-17
The jury of the initial competition for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) in 1983, led by Gae Aulenti and Raymond Affleck, took part in postmodern debates that appeared both dated and obsolete a decade later, in 1992, at the museum’s opening. With the “postmo” revolution dwindling, in architecture at least, and with Place des Arts becoming a true Quartier des spectacles, the MACM building, which never proved its urban integration in spite of advanced principles, had long acted as a sad and cumbrous liner. Launched in 2017 by the MAC/MCC/SQI crew, the contemporary competition had to first and foremost find a new approach. If the comparison of the two procedures reveals a regression, such as a concerning closing of the competitions, the judgment of the four selected projects leaves the Saucier + Perrotte/GLCRM architects team laureate without appeal.

It is useful to recall some historical facts. From the 1983 competition, we find some unfortunately brief documentation from the CCC (www.ccc.umontreal.ca) as the archives were lost or destroyed; we nevertheless published it in 2006. The architectural event had, however, persisted in a resilient Quebec, still in shock from the 1980 referendum. The competition was not perfect. The original program had not properly evaluated the needs and Gae Aulenti, having recently undertaken the realization of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, left during its deliberation. It took almost a decade to agree on a program that would be put into effect: the result, as we know, was disappointing. The fact remains that the 1983 competition was open to ALL architects in the province, as opposed to the current procedure, which is largely controlled by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications that has the advantage of defining its own rules as long it is alone to proceed by competition. No less than 101 teams (a number that cannot be invented) had ventured into Place des Arts, and we can only dream of the variety of projects and of true innovations that we would be able to present if today’s young and not so young offices had the same opportunity to compete.

New competition, very different procedure. Following the call for applications in June 2017, only 11 offices dared to submit an application, and two of them would be deemed non-compliant. It was still feasible to invite the nine teams, but the restrictive and still opaque procedure of the “preselection” limited the event to four teams familiar with the exercise: Atelier Big City + FSA architecture, Consortium DHA + NFOE architects, Consortium Saucier + Perrotte and GLCRM architects, Provencher Roy + Associés architects. A jury of seven people, including four architects, incorporated both the president of the Conseil d’administration du MAC (the very present Alexandre Taillefer) and its general director (the respected John Zeppetelli). Mario Saia, architect and president of the 2017 jury, knows the site well as he produced UQAM’s science pavilion, which is situated north of Place des Arts, but also because he was one of the 100 unfortunate competitors in 1983, as were the late Dan Hanganu, Victor Prus, Roger d’Astous and many others. Suffice it to say that an entire generation had trouble with what unfortunately became the white elephant of contemporary art in Québec. In view of the extraordinary densification of the Quartier des Spectacles, it was urgent to not only enlarge the museum, but even more so to give it a new breath, a true presence.

Without resorting to postmodernism, the main objectives of the competition included improving the accessibility and visibility of the museum’s main entrance, increasing the size of the exhibition spaces (including the exhibition halls and rooms), and increasing the spaces dedicated to education. However, the writing of the program will not stand out in the records of architectural literature. A passage to be used as a diagnostic of the existing program deserves to be quoted as such in support of our criticism. It states: “Le bâtiment, bien que marquant par sa volumétrie postmoderne singulière, n’exprime pas l’identité propre du MACM. L’absence d’éléments signalétiques majeures (sic) sur ses façades ou d’autres éléments identitaires forts ne participent (sic) pas à son rayonnement”. We cannot help but connect this weak analysis and doubtful syntax with the stylistic argument, found in the same document that speaks to the evolution of contemporary art as it praises the multidisciplinary benefits of postmodernism in favour of the transformation of the museum, because: “… un changement profond de l’expression de l’art contemporain est marqué par l’arrivée du postmodernisme. Principalement caractérisé par une multiplicité de disciplines qui utilisent à leur tour divers médiums, ce mouvement comprend les projections, les performances et les installations temporaires”. In short, contemporary art is driven by postmodern practices that no longer accommodate a postmodern building.

This postmodernism could lead to another, however, the competitors were asked to propose a layout adaptable to new forms of exhibitions, while increasing the size of the museum to exhibit a larger part of its permanent collection. With irony (another postmodern strategy) put on standby, we will not resist the pleasure of citing a last passage of the program that betrays the gap between the supposed contemporary architectural discourse and the expectations of a “clientele” that is thought to be, at this point, so concerned with rebalancing that the term “harmony” – though barely used in today’s architecture schools – appears twice in the same sentence: “The building will have to sit in harmony with Place des Arts’ different buildings, and be developed in harmony with the cultural functions of the Quartier des spectacles. The new museum must establish a strong dialogue with the neighbouring cultural buildings.”

So how was this equation (insertion / harmony / expansion) resolved in the fours projects (evaluated in December 2017 though the winner was only announced in April 2018)? The jury was unanimous, and we must admit that Saucier + Perrotte / GLCRM’s proposal clearly stands out, as the other three competitors seem to have mistakenly interpreted the demand and its context; it is difficult to blame them upon reading the “construction program”. The summary of the jury’s report aims to be precise, but is laconic. Its format, which is now imposed by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec, consists of three columns (arguments in favour of the provision, arguments against the provision, reservations of the jury).
This time, with such a table, there is no risk of syntax errors and no writing effect is permissible, which is damaging for a summary of collective and qualitative judgment. The document nevertheless offers some fairly precise indicators on several points: questions of integration in context, functional aspects, the spatial experience, sustainable development, innovation, the technical quality and constructability of the project, the feasibility, the respect of the scenic arrangements, and compliance with the enlargement limits. In regards to the respect of these limits, two of the projects received the benign mention of “correcting the slight encroachment on the Esplanade”, while the other two had to “validate the treatment in front of the main entrance”.
In a risk society, all projects had to be deemed “feasible” and subject to validation by a “value analysis”. The other criteria that have been the subject of negative remarks will certain be judged without gravity by many architects: for example, some of the projects are criticized for placing educational spaces in the basement, which may appear as a value judgment to anyone who has not visited the Royal Ontario Museum or the new extension of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which have successfully used this strategy. On a functional level, there is nothing very worrying for most of the projects. There is some lack of flexibility in Provencher Roy’s design of the atrium, in DHA + NFOE’s development of an entrance on Jeanne-Mance that complicates the museum’s management, or in the confusing nature of Big City + FSA’s main entrance and their failure to present the plans for the levels 3 and 4. As for Saucier + Perrotte / GLCRM, it is noted that: “the organization of the educational workshops is not optimal for a young clientele”. So far nothing explains the choice of the laureate. To understand the jury’s unanimous decision, we must rather consider this urban tension, which was badly formulated in the program, between two complementary criteria of the competition: integration in context and the spatial experience. In other words, how do we design a museum, as lively as it is contemporary, in the heart of Montreal’s most lively neighborhood?

Considering that the museum will have to attend to three very different contexts (Place des Arts’ historic esplanade, the dynamic Saint-Catherine street and the place des festivals on Jeanne Mance Street), Big City + FSA’s project receives the harshest criticism for its contextual integration: “We worry about the durability of the project in its context (and of a) main entrance that lacks magnitude”. This “argument against its execution” should, however, be compensated by two remarks in the “arguments in favour” column, which states, on the one hand, that it is the best proposal for sustainable development, and especially that the project is “completely different from the three others and in direct relation to contemporary art”. If Provencher Roy’s project is praised for its innovative possibility of increasing revenues by renting its spaces, it would report a “certain weakness in the dialogue with the Esplanade”, whereas DHA + NFOE’s project sees “the presence of the pleated wall on the Esplanade” which creates dissension in the jury. However, Saucier + Perrotte’s project receives an excellent note in this regard. We consider, neither more or less, the “architectural party as particularly significant for Montrealers and the museum”. Always speaking on behalf of Montrealers, the jury sees it as a “project likely to become iconic”. A grand compliment that successfully demonstrates the paradoxical nature of the “integration in context” criterion since the winning project possesses a “seductive architectural statement that integrates itself well in the context while remaining well distinct”.

In regards to the experience of the spaces, the jury was particularly strict with Provencher Roy’s project, perceiving a “lack of sensibility”, whereas for the innovation criterion, the architectural treatment of the façade on Sainte-Catherine of Big City + FSA’s project was deemed “disturbing and unresolved”. As such, the experience of the spaces remains a criterion that is both encompassing and vague.

Though Canadian Competitions Catalogue readers were able to appreciate the 4 projects, it became clear that the winning team’s architectural and visual communication strategy remained the clearest, best presented, and overall most refined. While DHA + NFOE’s boards revealed the 3 facades (the true 3 terms of this project’s premise) on three separate boards, complicating the grasp of their application, and as Provencher Roy only gathered two facing views and Big City + FSA got lost in one of their favourite chromatic manifestos (alternately judged, “disturbing, worrying and unresolved”: three objectives that contemporary art often fuses), only Saucier + Perrotte / GLRCM bothered to simply and clearly show the declination of the three reports in a nice lesson on contemporary urban architecture:
1 – The elevation facing Jeanne Mance Street does not try to erase, camouflage or split the very rhythmic initial party of JLP, but rather introduces a large hanging opening, a sort of huge theatrical loggia transforming the museum into a spectator with the best position overlooking the large place des festivals.
2 – The elevation facing Sainte-Catherine Street, both modest and refined, does not sacrifice anything to the signage. The location of the entrance of the museum is emphasized and protected, and the angle of Jeanne Mance and Saint-Catherine streets is well marked by a mass placed on the right angle and the cantilever: a true rectification of the urban form previously disemboweled from Place des Arts. A metallic curtain will make use of reflections and anamorphosis to hide or reveal. Perhaps it will even allow screenings in a “Moment Factory” style.
3 – The elevation facing the Esplanade is not as confusing as Big City’s, nor does it strangely echo OSM’s large theatre foyers as does DHA + NFOE’s design, and nor does it adhere to the typically postmodern curvatures of the museum as did Provencher Roy. The façade facing the Esplanade in Saucier + Perrotte / GLCRM architects’ project fully embraces the existing linearity, all while rectifying and simplifying it in its tectonics, as in its hierarchy. The jury will consider the “spectacular, audacious, coherent and controlled architectural gesture whose durability is underlined”. This is a compliment that does not say anything much, but does in short suggest that the project won for undeniable set of its qualities.

For having often demanded that the jury reports be made public as soon as possible after a competition, we must commend the organization of this competition, but it is unfortunately concerning that these “new formula” reports, organized in 3 columns of pros, cons and “reserves”, will be unable to reveal the complexity of a collective judgment and the hours of qualitative debate that make up the basis of a competition’s procedure. This list of likes and dislikes remains rather adolescent in its deconstruction of beauty and practicality.

On the architectural level, there is really something to celebrate about the fact that Jodoin Lamarre and Pratte’s initial building will not be camouflaged or obliterated by the elegant insertion of the winning project. It will be respected for its qualities, and its main defects, some of which were directly related to the total transformation of the neighborhood since the 1980s, will be corrected. If the direction of the new Museé d’art contemporain de Montréal has still largely failed in its mission to foster contemporary experimentation by organizing, under the paradoxical influence of its ministry of culture, a competition that remained too closed and restrained, leaving no space for the next generation, the Place des Arts gets away with it; the elegant and respectful modernism of the Saucier + Perrotte / GLCRM project will undoubtedly prove to be an excellent long-term investment of high architectural quality.

Jean-Pierre Chupin, PhD,
April 30th, 2018.

(Translated by Chanelle Lalonde)
IMPORTANT NOTICE : Unless otherwise indicated, photographs of buildings and projects are from professional or institutional archives. All reproduction is prohibited unless authorized by the architects, designers, office managers, consortiums or archives centers concerned. The researchers of the Research Chair on Competitions and Contemporary Practices in Architecture are not held responsible for any omissions or inaccuracies, but appreciate all comments and pertinent information that will permit necessary modifications during future updates.
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