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Cape Diamond
by Adrienne Costa, published 2017-02-13
The history of "Nouvelle France" describes the event when Jacques Cartier mistook the shining quartz stone on a cliff as precious stones, hereafter naming the cliff "Cape Diamond.” Another theatrical story, "Le Diamant,” is a competition to design a space for creation that started in 2007. It was launched by Robert Lepage, the theater director and founder of the Ex Machina Company who envisioned a theatre of six hundred seats, intended for the creation and diffusion at a national and international level.

As planned by Robert Lepage, "le Diamant" was designed to be a catalyst for artistic innovations, containing studios and equipment intended for contemporary creations, for the circus, the cabaret and the initiation of a new entertainment district. On top of all this, the space needs to accommodate for Ex Machina’s production.

For this project, the first site to be considered was in fact Cape Diamond; a hill overhanging the Saint Laurent River and a stronghold of Quebec’s citadel. After several years of uncertainty regarding the project funding, the competition was launched during the summer of 2015.

The jury was chaired by Robert Lepage along with Ex Machina’s producer, Michel Bernatchez, the historian Luc Noppen, and the architects Jacques Bellanger and Charles-Bernard Gagnon (Gargo architecture). Lise Anne Couture (Asymptote architecture) initially sat on the jury but withdrew in the end.

The chosen site is conveniently in front of the busy Youville plaza, at the foot of the Quebec fortifications. Mayor Regis Labeaume believes that this square has the potential to become the new heart of the entertainment district. Seemingly ideal, the site is not without difficulties due to the adjoining condominium and the existing YMCA built in 1879. As required by the Ministry of Culture, these existing facades need to be preserved. This coincides with Robert Lepage’s vision, that of the importance of maintaining the YMCA, a place of art that has always played a cultural role.

Altogether, the four teams did not manage to justify the preservation of the facades. Because of this prescribed obligation, the value of each proposal could not be captured to its full potential, explaining the general homogeneity with regards to the conservation, demolition, installation and volumes.

For the first stage of the competition, the jury selected four teams among the 17 submitted applications.
- Anne Carrier Architecture / Lupien Matteau and the S.M. Group International Inc.
- Co architecture / in Situ/ Jacques Plante architecte and BPR/ Tetra Tech inc. ing.
- Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes and WSP ing.
- Saucier Perrotte / STGM architectes and Pasquin St-Jean ing.

The two YMCA facades were preserved by each team, constituting the projects’ main angle. As for the “Mansart Roof,” most of the teams attempted a full or partial recovery. Three of four projects, including the winner and the honorable mention, proposed a function that can be described as such:
- Access to the theatre’s lower rows located on the ground floor along with a commercial concourse with shops facing the plaza.
- A mezzanine foyer that overhangs the shops, besides the theatre’s upper rows.
- Located between the YMCA and the theater, a void for the staircase leading to YMAC’s rooftop.

These similarities were brought up by the jury, criticizing these architectural features since they “don’t reflect Ex Machina.”

Anne Carrier Architecture / Lupien Matteau’s proposal remains the most unique as it challenges the question and program. The project reinterprets the question at a human scale, giving impetus to the mayor’s will that this neighborhood becomes the “entertainment district.” The layout proposed is comparable to Montreal’s “Place des Arts.” The project also adopts a new position regarding the programmatic elements and the operation of the theatre’s first floor.

The jury’s two leading projects are very similar in terms of volumes and operations; they both presented the theatre foyer inside the YMCA, placing the staircase in between the existing and new buildings.

Unanimously picked, the winning project evokes a prismatic lantern inserted between the YMCA remnants and the neighboring building designed by Co architecture / in Situ / Jacques Plante architecte. To the jury’s satisfaction, the project answers to the request for a diamond, by a diamond. Literally speaking, the volumes are trimmed by oblique surfaces, with translucent and white facade. The visual supports depicted a shiny interior universe, while the presentation text gave even more reason to choose this simple and expected proposal. In a Radio Canada interview on December 9, 2015, “Un Diamant contemporain dans un édifice patrimonial,” Marie Chantal Croft from the Coarchitecture office states: “Transparency is a widespread way of working in a historical environment because it is less offensive than other materials because it does not have a strong presence. Instead, the glazed sections fade and give way to the historical context.” Signs of a skilled team, this proposal went into greater detail of the theatre’s technical operation and also presented the thermal comfort of the building.

The project by Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architects presented a theater curtain that hides the stage house between the YMCA and the condominium. The escalator unravels like a ribbon along the entire height of the central void. The foyer seems to take less space compared to the other proposals. A topographical section communicates the relation between the studio 1’s terrace on top of the YMCA and the fortification’s terrace.

The honorable mention, by Saucier Perrotte / STGM architects, is a knowledgeable set of proposals oriented towards different urban situations which produce an architecture that is slightly overloaded. The jury criticized this project for its poorly elaborated descriptions. The street facade is stratifying revealing every level with shadow gaps which, as stressed by the jury, elegantly evokes YMCA ornamentation. A large loggia, for which the accessibility is unclear, expands as a cantilever on top of the YMCA terrace. An urban overhead mirror of this loggia communicates the association between this terrace and the public space. Swiveling between the two facades, this bay window encloses management offices.

Reflecting on this competition, it is clear that the prescriptive element of the YMCA led to the homogeneity of the proposals; a disappointing conclusion for a building holds a great deal of importance and is well-situated in Quebec City. Regrettably, as Jimmy Leiser wrote in an analysis published in ARQ in August 2016 (note 2), the winning project was modified after the competition, mainly by adding extra surfaces truncating the prismatic lantern, reinforcing, if it was necessary, the diamond symbolic.

The competition’s double issue was, firstly, to properly pay tribute to Robert Lepage, an internationally renowned playwright, and secondly, to mark the beginning of a new entertainment district at the foot of the fortified city. In this case, the clients held the chief authority over the project. As authorities on the subject, these adamant stakeholders enforced limiting rules that left the four teams with little room for exploration.
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