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A Literature House for Québec, architecture and/or stage design?

by Louis Destombes, published 2013-03-08
Literature houses, be they European or anywhere else in the world, have received writers-in-residence since the 19th century. In order to confirm that Québec City as a showplace for literary creation, the Canadian Institute of Québec oriented itself towards a new programmatic type, the first in Canada, inspired by similar institutions that have recently opened their doors (Oslo in 2007, Geneva in 2012). The concept of the digital age is explained using an obscure but enlightening analogy: “a place that is to literature what a library is to reading”. The literature house of the 21st century is oriented towards both memory and creation, and combines the writers' residences with public spaces that can accommodate events and expositions around literature that is written and read on digital mediums. As detailed in the program, the literature house is a “ unique and always surprising” place that should provoke a feeling of “jamais vu” within the user.

The realization of the project takes place in the old Wesley temple, already occupied by the Canadian Institute who there established the city's first public library in 1946. The temple, built in 1848 under the direction of architect Edward Stavely, is a neogothic style building listed on the cultural heritage register of Québec, and has a strong presence in Old Québec as well as in the cultural history of the city. To build a literature house within the walls of this historic building was a dual architectural challenge: how to reconcile the exceptional spatial qualities of the temple with a site experience supposed to renew the literary imaginary? How to assert the presence of a 21st century cultural institution while respecting the monumental character of a historic building?

Certain elements of the competition's description foreshadow possible answers to the aforementioned questions. “No expansion is planned in the competition and the work is limited essentially to within the existing envelope.” The teams of architects had to work on their proposal in collaboration with a scenographer. While reading the program one could understand that the expected answer is a spatial staging contained within the temple's envelope, a staging that offers the visitor a sensory and interactive experience. Of the four teams selected, three responded to this expectation, whereas the winning team of Montreal architects Chevalier Morales and scenographer Luc Plamondon adopted a different position.

The teams of Eric Pelletier with GSMPRJCT and Brière Gilbert + In Situ with Plante addressed the question of the experience of the site with the notion of circulation. The project led by Eric Pelletier takes the form of a succession of thematic sequences where architecture and scenography form a “symbiotic” relationship, in the words of the designers. Scenes, passages, cavities and alcoves each setting a specific ambiance are intermingled in a three-dimensional labyrinth. This autonomous device occupies the entire volume, maintaining indifference for the existing architecture, which has been reduced to a mere shell. The jury, seduced by the scenographic qualities of the proposal, was put off by the lack of adaptability of the device where “everything is measured and calibrated in order to produce the desired effect in a rich sequence which, in itself, is rather inflexible.” In Brière Gilbert, In Situ and Plante's proposal, the circulation unfolds around a central void, guided by a “scenographic [and interactive] ribbon”, a type of golden thread. Despite the emphasis placed on the verticality of the circulation space, the interior volume of the temple is reduced to an outer shell by the addition of two new floors and two separate, large vertical circulations, deemed “spatially invasive” by the jury.

Ramoisy Tremblay architects, in collaboration with Moment Factory, developed a radically different relationship between architecture and scenography, with a device based on the immateriality of new communication technologies: an electronic “bookmark” given to every visitor. The lightness of the architectural intervention reflects this minimalism, creating an open space where wandering is done at the discretion of the individual. The related programs being hidden in the basement and attic of the building, the only seeming additions to the original building are the café, using the figure of a suspended bridge in the volume of the nave, and the showcases, acting as an interface between interior and exterior. Because of its lack of tangibility, the project was perceived by the jury as “too conventional” to make the Literary House an “exceptional project”.

The strength of these three proposals rests on the balance between the scenographic concept and the architectural intent that follows it. To quote Eric Pelletier, these symbiotic design approaches, although they answer the expectations of the program, did not enable the teams to profit from the exceptional qualities of Stavely's temple. Quite the contrary, in Chevalier Morales' proposal the development of the project begins with a strong architectural gesture, one that is simple and risky vis-à-vis the program: while all the other candidates accommodated the writers' residences and creative spaces in the residual spaces of their proposals, Chevalier Morales decided to place these programs in an annex building, adjoining the original building. With this bold choice, the winners started off with at least two advantages: the possibility of freeing the entire main space of the temple, and the possibility of signaling the new cultural institution by adding an iconic building, a “urban lantern”, without the risk of loosing the character of the existing building. Relieved of this programmatic overload, the project develops in an obvious manner between the two existing levels. Scenographic installations of a rich materiality distinguish themselves from the white and pure architectural backdrop. Rather than a symbiotic relationship, there is a complementarity where the scenographic installations draw from the volume of the temple in order to increase the architectural features.

A design competition is an opportunity to juxtapose different proposals for a given issue. In this case, the exceptional circumstances provided by the rehabilitation of the Wesley Temple bring to question the relevance of predetermining the architectural design at the stage of the programming. To discard the recommendation “no expansion is planned in the competition and the work is limited essentially to within the existing envelope” would have made the fortune of the teams. Also, the initiative to associate the skills of a scenographer to those of an architect from the very beginning of the project must be applauded. However, some of the results of the competition show an orientation of the architectural design towards the purely scenographic. Sergio Morales and Luc Plamondon, whose proposal was unanimous among the jury, managed a convergence of the architectural qualities of the temple and the scenographic qualities of the project, answering outside of the limits imposed by the program. Literature is well worth such an inflection.

(Translated by Konstantina Theodosopoulos)
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