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OMA in Quebec: Office for MNBAQ Architecture

by Jean-Pierre Chupin, published 2010-04-01
It is an immense sign of cultural maturity, by choosing to open the design of one of the most prestigious buildings in Quebec to international competitors, by allowing Quebec architects to measure themselves, at home, against the best teams in the world, based on a three phases process that was as balanced as it was rigorous, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts, in addition to the unanimous selection of a response to a difficult problematic, has finally assured that Quebec made it into the major league of international competitions.

A brief historical overview of the past 50 years reveals that the world of architecture has not always been so open, as we may sometimes think, in the “belle province”. In the fall of 2013, or even winter 2014, when the proposed new pavilion will have been built by the winning team comprised of a consortium including OMA, the leading Dutch agency (under the direction of Rem Koolhaas) and the leading Quebec office, Provencher Roy and Associates, architectural historians may say - and this in itself is surprising - that this is the first time in Quebec history that a foreign team will have been authorized to build here following a competition.

Let me be clear. There were many other competitions and many other foreign architects to flourish in Quebec. But by consulting the current data of the CCC, certainly always under construction, I found barely any foreign winners and never any projects built by foreigners. Careful, we are not referring to the painful episode of the Olympic stadium, by the visionary mayor and the French Mandarin, an operation that forced many people to smoke cigarettes in order to repay the propensities for the oblique because the stadium was primarily a princely order. We are also not comparing the MNBAQ competition with the extraordinary competition for Toronto City Hall in 1958, which brought together over 520 participants from around the world – a shocking figure that invalidates any possibility of a fair judgment - because this competition primarily allowed Québec architects to measure themselves with their Canadian counterparts. A few major competitions were organised in the 1980s, especially for museums (National Museum of Civilization in 1980 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1983), but whether it involved 5 or 101 competitors, they came exclusively from Quebec. We are neither referring to competitions of ideas, which we accept to open at an international level, primarily because these refer just to ... ideas. A first breach was opened in 1990, with the Place Jacques Cartier competition, which brought together 8 international teams and was won by a promising Quebec architect, Jacques Rousseau.

The cultural competitions of the 1990s, often small scale, were systematically restricted to Quebec practitioners, but they had a very important function. The exhibition organized within the framework of a research by Professor Denis Bilodeau, for the period 1990-2005, showed the considerable impact that all these competitions of museums, libraries, cultural centers, etc., had at the time for the recognition of a territorial imaginary across Quebec. It is difficult to understand why the competition procedure continues to create distrust in the profession, when we measure their educative power over decision makers and those that provide the work, as many of them recognize a posteriori. This cultural policy was intended to stimulate Quebec architecture and it was a success.

Only at the turn of the century, exactly in 2000, Quebec architecture accepted once more to compete on an international scale, with the competition of the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec. The result was relatively conclusive, the collaboration between the Canadian and Quebec winners, was rough at times, may we say, and the jury's verdict gave rise to much speculation, fuelled by the fact that the government has not yet released the jury report: more than 10 years after the verdict. If this competition was not the most transparent, the building continues to demonstrate its relevance to users.

That leaves, as the only previous competition won by foreign architects, the one held for the Cultural and Administrative Complex (MSO) in 2002. Remember from the outset that the cultural program was literally phagocytised by the surface area allocated for offices, that however led to a major two stage competition, the first phase completely open, gathered more than a hundred projects from around the world, and where the second phase positioned 5 teams, with at least two comprised entirely of Quebec practitioners, on an equal footing, and the winner of which was both Dutch and Quebecois (consortium of De Architekten, Aedifica and TPL and associates). A change of government precipitated the cancellation of the order, where this government never authorized the release of the jury report: a perfect recipe to undermine the process (presumably for the benefit of PPP), a perfect recipe to frustrate the professionals (an abortive competition is not good for anyone) and a perfect recipe to give free rein to the journalists always quick to reduce the complexity of an architectural project to some metaphorical caricature, as it is easy to mock the "big box" (since, may we specify that the 100 000 m2 of the brief was difficult to contain in a small box).

It is therefore slightly easier to understand the enthusiasm of the architects (young and less young) conscious of the international recognition of their discipline, concerned with quality and excellence, but equally, the surprise of critics and historians who today realize that with the result announced by the management of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, and if all proceeds as planned, the shock waves and influence of the outcome should have exemplary effects. History will tell if this is really the first competition in which the search for the best project took precedence over other considerations. The fact that it is a foreign team that leads the development of a national project is not at all a failure of Quebec architecture, it is all the more commendable in its quest for excellence and therefore it can be seen as an encouraging sign of cultural maturity.

We will take other opportunities to comment on the actual architectural projects presented, because it is important here to highlight one final aspect of this great event. It is essentially the first time that a competition organizer for a public building ensures the dissemination of ALL projects IMMEDIATELY after the announcement of the result, as an obvious concern for transparency. Hoping that the Canadian Competitions Catalogue serves as a platform for dissemination to the widest audience, both here and internationally, the management of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts recognizes the importance of the mission for the diffusion of contemporary architecture that the researchers of the L.E.A.P were given, which confirms the status of this competition as an exemplary event.
(translated by Carmela Cucuzzella)

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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