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A new look to discover at Rouyn-Noranda

by Lucie Palombi, published 2018-11-28
It took ten years of patience and fundraising for the renovation of the Agora des Arts, a seven-hour drive north-west of Montreal, to finally take shape. Formerly a religious building, which has become a production area and a performing arts center, this cultural center, known for its various events, will soon change its decor. This competition demonstrated the importance of a territorial vision of cultural infrastructures.

This concern is not new: the link between architecture and collective identity is a prominent issue in Quebec. In Concours d’architecture et imaginaire territorial : Les projets culturels au Québec 1991-2005, Denis Bilodeau, shows that the merger between architecture and territorial identity is no longer perceived as a continuation of a scholarly tradition, but is placed in relation to the territory: "the opposition between regionalism and modernity, between respect for local traditions and the search for progress and innovation through the application of an abstract and universal language, has polarized attitudes towards the definition of collective identity. It is now giving way to a desire for dialogue that involves not only the forms of the built environment, but also the overall relationship between architecture and its natural and cultural physical environment ". (Bilodeau, 2006) For more than twenty years, cultural facilities have been updating collective identities by positioning themselves as experimental laboratories throughout Québec. Bilodeau tells us that in 1992, the Ministry of Culture and Communications adopted a measure making the architectural competition mandatory for any cultural project supported by the State. A language relating to the territory would then be built throughout the province: "In addition to leading to the realization of many new cultural facilities in various cities and regions of Quebec, this measure has generated a significant project of reflection and creation which has helped to consolidate the paradigmatic value of the territorial theme in the search for the expression of identity in architecture ". (Bilodeau, 2006) Many Quebec cultural projects were born from this political decision. To mention just a few competitions: l'Anglicane de Lévis in 1999, the Carleton Cultural Production Center in 2000, the Mont-Laurier and Rimouski multifunctional center in 2011, and the subject of this competition, the Rouyn Noranda Cultural Center.

The non-profit organization was born from a citizen initiative. It is intended for all audiences and all sensibilities. Recognized for its major involvement in education as a cultural forum, it does not deviate from its agora status. Music and theater find a remarkable space of creation and representation in the old church. With a budget of almost six million dollars (plus taxes), the renovations are designed to bring the technical equipment up to standard so that they meet the needs of the companies that come to present their productions. But they must also and especially offer access to people with reduced mobility, while promoting the comfort of the spectators. While the theater celebrates a last season of programming before provisional closure, the firm Chevalier and Morales were announced the winners of the competition to renew this deep-rooted church. The other competitors included: CGA / Pelletier de Fontenay, Paul Laurendeau / ArtCad, and BGLA / Trame / Jacques Plante. What then happened behind the scenes of this competition?

The draw designates the first team to enter the stage. The consortium BGLA / Trame / Jacques Plante placed the comfort of the spectator at the fore. In this proposal, "every seat is a good seat". The competitors replaced the rood screen of the old church by a theatrical foyer. The decision was welcomed by the members of the jury. The architects also offered animated spaces in front of the façade. The exterior staircase was rebuilt as a new forecourt is offered: a "commendable gesture" for the jurors, "although it may cause confusion as to the determination of the main entrance", announcing in subtext its lack of conviction regarding this dimension of the project. The team also offered a clever awning that runs along the path of the main facade of the church. The jury was not completely conquered: "The marquise proposed on Murdoch Street offers an interesting shelter against bad weather. However, it cuts some access to the garden and reduces its integration with the whole.” If the glazed facade also fails to create the necessary illusion ("The architectural cost of the new volume with the proposed long curtain wall expresses little cultural character of the building while the transparency of its materiality will be effective in the evening, but not during the day" ), the inconvenience regarding circulation within the building was also considered regrettable ("The proposed positioning for the elevator is quite remote from the main access and leads the public to come into contact with the more technical and private areas"). As an aside, the idea of a single elevator - inconvenient in case of a breakdown - did not convince the audience.

Lifting the curtain for the second proposal: the CGA / Pelletier de Fontenay team enters. The architects chose to keep the central access of the church: "a laudable and respectful approach that recognizes the sacredness of the original building"; an approach which was valued by the jury. However, this proposal wasn’t enough to merit the commission. The proposed extension seemed to present visual dissonance: "the proposed treatment and materiality contrast sharply with that of the church, thus creating a certain fracture with the existing building". It was regrettable that the proposed architectural treatment was closer to the domestic scale than to that of a public building. Moreover, regarding the inner views of the project, gatherings seemed to be reduced to small clusters. If the jury was reluctant, it was also because of the unusual shape of the staircase which lead to the main room. The jury concluded its report with this remark: "The proposal contains certain functional and technical blunders that weaken its admissibility". Less by its daring strangeness than its functional clumsiness, the design of this crucial element unfortunately leaves one puzzled.

The firm Chevalier Morales relied on emphasising the historic qualities of the building to rethink and proposed "an object of memory." Careful, conscientious, and methodical, they based their approach on a precise and thorough patrimonial analysis which was appreciated by the jury. The jury also noted the "durability of the proposal as to its materiality" in relation to the firm's choices. Glazed walls and metallic meshes make a religion. So pious as they border on austerity, the jury warned them. Although the masonry mesh proposed for the extension of the building was a strong distinctive sign, "its current treatment gives the new pavilion a massive and somewhat austere appearance". An approach that the architects wil not fail to correct after the competition. Another grain of sand jams the mechanics: the proposal sinned from lack of generosity. Clearances, barely - just - right, were betrayed by graphical representations. The guillotine falls: "The circulation spaces proposed inside the new pavilion are quite narrow and not very generous, and this, on each floor. The whole would benefit from being slightly enlarged. But it is easy to understand that shortened spaces matter less than a winning parti. Indeed, the old forecourt totally removed, it is a monumental interior staircase, "treated as a piece of cabinetmaking", which welcomes visitors, stages them during the intermission and which can be read from the street thanks to the glazed walls. All we see is this wooden icon which is as massive as it is refined. How can one resist? Strangely enough, however, the question of the theater, certainly essential, is evoked only in plan, and the jury expected more regarding its materiality. Nevertheless, the scenic writing of the Chevalier Morales team won the unanimity of the jurors.

Last act with the Paul Laurendeau / ArtCad, which revealed a bold and playful lighthouse in the city. The old bell tower, with its emanating lighting, ensured "a remarkable presence of the new theater from the street", according to the jury. This signal is reinforced by the use of color that catch the eye: red, black and gold call to the spectator in the city. An extra-large typographic character - which one cannot miss -, monumental logo of the Agora, announces the place where the animation takes place. Inside the building, the addition of a front stage is welcomed by the jury: "the proposed modification of the theatre room by means of a proscenium with variable height is appreciated". The critiques were for the most part admiring and applaud the audacity of the firm. But the picture would be incomplete if we failed to point out the functional clumsiness that blurred the circulation: "The path of the visitor from the front door to that of the theatre room remains confusing and uninviting." For the jury, the animation at the front of the building lacks coherence: bar / bistro, vestibules, external staircase and elevator coexist at the front of church. According to the jurors, "The interventions proposed on the façade mitigate the development of certain heritage characteristics of the church". Ultimate shortcoming for this team? The reason for the proposed exterior staircase, which is elegant, has not been clearly demonstrated.

Moreover, we will remember that each of the four proposals for the Agora des Arts has distinguished itself by remarkable qualities. The scenographic understanding and the interest for the comfort of the spectator at BGLA / Trame / Jacques Plante pleased the jury. The respectful heritage approach of the CGA / Pelletier de Fontenay team was welcomed. The festive image conveyed by Paul Laurendeau / ArtCad has been recognized as an undeniable attraction. The studious project of Chevalier Morales, however, stood out from the rest. The patrimonial proofreading, the volumetric simplicity, but especially the conceptual integration of the project to the site - not to say the territory - ultimately convinced the jury. They were charmed by the idea to carry out the work in two stages: first a curettage operation and then the construction work.

The winning firm's proposal ultimately plays a role in regenerating the city's founding structures by redeveloping its cultural center. Denis Bilodeau has also analyzed this paradigm shift very well: "Architecture no longer refers directly to the architectural tradition in the sense of a typological and stylistic continuity peculiar to the scholarly tradition, but rather seeks to revive itself within signifying objects found outside of one's own tradition, in this case, in the city”. (Bilodeau, 2006) The Agora des Arts project, revisiting modernity to adapt it to the palimpsest of the territory, crystallizes debates and reflections regarding the relationship between Québec architecture and collective identity.

Cited work:
Bilodeau, Denis. Concours d’architecture et imaginaire territorial : Les projets culturels au Québec 1991-2005, LEAP/Université de Montréal et Centre de design de l’Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, 2006. p.25

(Translated by Maxime Leblanc)
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