Laval, Projected City. The Chomedey Civic Centre Competition (1961-1956).
Launched August 22nd 1961, the Chomedey Civic Centre Competition announced the creation of the city of Laval, four months after the fusion of the municipalities Saint-Martin, L’Abord-à-Plouffe, and Renauc de l’Île Jésus. As grounds to determine an architect versed in the “civic complex”, being of a social nature both formally and programmatically, the competition aimed to differ from the agrarian traditions of the municipal systems. This competition is the first opportunity for the government of Municipal Affairs of Quebec to materialize symbolism in both the territorial fusion and the socio-economic reconstruction, called for by the accelerated process of the industrialization and the urbanization of the Quiet Revolution.
Organized by the architect Jean Ouellet, the competition was held within a short period of time, (from September 7th to October 11th) offering five weeks from registration to final hand in. While the competition was only open to architects in a 40 kilometer radius, it still appealed to 63 participants, distinctly: Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Leblanc, John B. & John C. Parkin & Jacques Folch-Ribas, as well as Labelle, Labelle & Marchand, André Blouin, Roger d'Astous, and Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold & Sise. Both the competition drawings and the construction plans of the winning proposal are conserved at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, whilst few traces remain of the other proposals. The runner up’s proposal is conserved at the National Library and Archives of Québec, whereas as two publications succinctly outline the competition and briefly discloses the third place project. The majority of the documentation is located in the Laval archives as a micro data file.
The Competition Schedule
The competition schedule reveals that the civic centre needed to not only coalesce all of the city’s social and cultural administrative activities, but it needed to predict a space for public assemblies, for the cultural amenities (such as library, centre for arts, theatre,) and for the governmental services (including a postal office and sanitary units.) The proposals needed to anticipate facilities for the school commission and the municipal court, adjacent to the police station and the fire hall without being merged. The projects needed to foresee the future of Île Jésus as a whole while speculating future municipalities. While Chomedey was described as a newly born city, it was more of a metropolis when it started off because of both industrial activities and amenities. Its growing population, which was estimated to triple in fifteen years, not only required the prediction of residential zones, but also needed to accommodate offices for scientific, technological and industrial development. On top of all this, the proposal needed to take into account other competing elements such as: A city centre composed of a business district, of markets, of major businesses, of cultural institutions, and of educational centres (both superior and technical). Thus, the 1961 competition did not seek a solution, but to establish a solid departure point, encouraging the contestant to produce research and to present their results by way of sketches (massing plans, floor plans, and site plans, along with a building section, two elevations and interior perspectives) accompanied by a construction schedule and plans. The coveted building, being city hall, needed to start construction briefly after the announcement of the results. Its layout needed to be versatile and predict simple expansions. It also needed to accommodate for the tax services, for consultation offices of both the mayor and aldermen, and for document consultation. At the time, the construction budget for this first building was $500 000.
From Fusion to Representation
The completion of the Chomedey Civic Centre proved to be an effective mechanism for the territorial cohesion and the municipal regionalization. At the time, the press review revealed that on one hand, there was a dynamic and prospective projection of the city of Chomedey, and on the other, a dissonance provoked by the forced municipal fusions. In 1961, with the 35 000 citizens, the city of Chomedey is the first municipal merger in Québec; Île Jésus had previously been a string of sixteen villages governed by sixteen mayors. Due to the amalgamation, the resistance would three years later, lead to an enquiry commissioned by the minister of Municipal Affairs of Quebec. Named the Sylvestre Commission, it searched to determine the discrepancies between the parochial administration system and the new territorial requirements.(1) The commissioned report demonstrated the ways in which the agricultural communities have transformed, over the last 60 years to one economical unit composed of groups each having different needs in regards to mass consumption.(2) Despite the pressure to conserve municipal autonomy, the study highlighted the economical inequalities related to property taxes and the creation of a more coherent municipal subsidy scheme. Basing himself on this data, Jean-Noël Lavoie, a 34 year old mayor inaugurated the metropolitan vision for Chomedey. Agriculture is then replaced by the industrial & property development and the construction of motorways: Four years later the fourteen municipalities are amalgamated.(3) The city of Laval is born August 6th 1965, subjected to the decree of Jean Lesage, the Premier of Québec, and Pierre Laporte, the Minister of Municipal Affairs for Québec. This is a solution to the ministerial governance caused by the explosion of the property bubble, the inter-municipal competition, and the disparity of costs and services that challenge the rural zones undergoing urbanization. As such, Laval realizes an ideological agenda generated by the state’s “modern” technocratic approach.(4) Its materialization was facilitated by its insular qualities that instinctively lead to the idea of the agglomeration into one, influenced by: “The perfectly delimited territory, the same calibre of population as a whole, and the vast empty land [giving advantage to organization].” (5) Searching to concretize a thoughtful vision, these issues have established the programmatic elements for this competition.
The competition results were unveiled October 15, 1961. The jury consisted of Mayor Lavoie, the Chomedey town clerk Gaston Chapleau, and the three architects: Maurice Gauthier, Victor Prus, and Jean Ouellet. With only limited information preserved, a large portion of the competition’s graphic content cannot be found, for which the analysis relies on the jury’s rapport and related publications. A special mention was allocated to the proposals by the architects Warshaw & Swartzman, Jacques Folch-Ribas, John B. & John C. Parkin, and particularly Roger D’Astous and Jean-Paul Pothier whose project stood out for its ebullience and formal dynamism. As stated by the jury, D’Astous & Pothier’s proposal, while being a little bit outdated, has a distinctive plastic expression, qualified as dramatic and seductive. Such a project would struggle to allow subsequent buildings with diverse architectural styles; architecture with an elevated sense of seduction, as displayed by this project, neglects the essential programmatic elements and functions of the building, perhaps due to the inherent symbolism in the forms. The proposed site for the civic centre is almost entirely taken up by the city hall. In regards to the scale, it seems to be adapted to the needs of a small municipality.
The third place was awarded to the architect André Blouin in recognition of the impact achieved by grouping the buildings which symbolically represented both civic and public facets. The jury determine that, while seemingly flexible and functional, the office tower monopolized the composition. They considered the project appropriate for a larger and more established metropolis; such is the idiom associated with the office tower, recalling the ubiquitous nature of modern architecture in America, leaving little space for a sensible anchorage to the site. The second prize was awarded to Henri S. Labelle, Henri P. Labelle & André Marchand Architects, rewarding their insightful study of public space that delineates the pedestrian zone from the vehicles zones. It was the jury’s opinion that the interior design effectively integrated the diversity of the civil functions, but it was not chosen because it was deemed insufficiently innovative. The observed weaknesses, mainly being the aesthetics and the reduced scale of the City Hall, fell short to answer to the fulfillment of the growing city of Chomedey.
The firm Affleck Desbarats Dimakopoulos, Lebensold & Architects received the first prize because they proposed “The only significant solution regarding the treatment of public space.” (6) The planning, as such, suggests volumes with a spatially flexible disposition allowing for the progressive realization of the civic centre, projecting buildings allocated for services regarding social well-being and health, a centre for arts, a municipal theatre, a library and a post office. The architectural language is not over-determined to the point of proposing ulterior development and the architectural treatment is aesthetically cohesive with the site. The jury also noted the coherence of the interior space, brought to light by the relationship between the landscaping and the interior design. The initial version included a series of buildings cohesively forming a fan deploying onto a green public plaza and at the centre was an amphitheatre offering a view of Montreal.(7) To make way for this civic centre, 183 000 square meters (600 000 square feet) of land had to be expropriated. The firm specified that the city hall would benefit from new construction methods, which included steel exterior panels anchored in the concrete, receiving the roof’s heavy loads. This had never been done in Canada. It has a rhythmic copper tint on the north and south facades.(8) As for the curtain wall, it was manufactured by Canadair. The building’s various sections are separated by a pre-stressed concrete system; the poured concrete slabs travel across the space, between the frames, the columns, and the walls to form the floors and the roof. This allowed for minimal beams, enabling the installation of the plumbing and the electrical work. As for the details, a zenithal lighting is integrated in the roof by way of the preassembled acrylic dome and the fenestration is tinted in order to control the luminosity intensity.
The project by Affleck Desbarats Dimakopoulos, Lebensold & Architects combines new technologies, emerging construction methods and the implementation of industrial materials to express the emergence of a new city. As a projection into the future, the architectural language of the civic centre reinterprets principles of symmetry and monumentality, notions that had been at the time rejected. The aesthetic expression emulates the construction itself, its rectilinear form, its materiality, and the study of the structure generated by Mies van der Rohe’s iconic S.R. Crown Hall in Chicago. (1950-1956, The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) The Chomedey City Hall finds similarities with the John Crerar Library (today the Paul V. Galvin Library), designed during the winter of 1961 by the architect Walter Netsch from the firm called Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. (S.O.M.) The similarities observed are the asymmetric entrance and the dichotomy generated by the fenestration’s steady rhythm that sits on the concrete base.
The city hall was inaugurated on the 22nd of November 1964 in the presence of René Lévesque, the minister of Natural Resources, who declared the building for a larger city than Chomedey. Lévesque was of the opinion that the concentration of the municipalities favoured a healthier development of the urban zones. This declaration foreshadowed Laval’s first city council assembly, held about nine months later on the 16th of August 1965.
(1) Chaired by Judge Armand Sylvestre, this commission is revising the plan of the structure and the management of municipalities; it is an awareness campaign to decrease them in favor of a regionalization of municipal management focused on the most urbanized core.
(2) Commission d’étude sur les problèmes intermunicipaux de l’île Jésus, Rapport final, Tome 1, décembre 1964, p. 15.
(3) Gilles Sénécal, Marcel Gaudreau & Serge Des Roches, « Les mécanismes de production de la forme urbaine et la conservation des espaces agricoles et naturels dans la région de Montréal : le cas de Laval », Cahiers de géographie du Québec, vol. 38, n° 105, 1994, p. 301-326.
(4) Julie Archambault &t Jacques T. Godbout, « Le rural en ville : Laval, Recherches sociographiques, n° 29, vol. 2-3, 1988, p. 445-454.
(5) Commission d’étude sur les problèmes intermunicipaux de l’île Jésus, Rapport final, Tome 2, décembre 1964, p. 243 et 257.
(6) Jean-Noël Lavoie (maire), Gaston Chapleau (greffier), Victor Prus, Maurice Gauthier et Jean Ouellet, Architectes, Rapport du jury, Concours en vue du choix d’un architecte pour l’hôtel de ville de Chomedey, octobre 1961, p. 3.
(7) The version that will be carried out later will see its buildings (City Hall, police, fire and municipal court) built on a promontory at the edge of the esplanade facing the Memorial Boulevard. The initial idea of city hall on stilts is exchanged for solid cast-on-site concrete. The idea of the elevation is retained even if the number of buildings is reduced. The town hall will be deployed horizontally into three volumes of approximately 50 meters (160 feet). The main body of the building will amount to 9.75 meters (32 feet). The two tallest towers will house the services such as electrical, mechanical, janitorial, kitchen, toilets. The second building is dedicated to police and fire services, incorporates the common spaces (offices, cells and garages for cars and firemen hose) with a municipal court courtroom.
(8) Jointly set up with the metal roof deck, the sandwich metal wall frame usually saves the supporting traditional curtain walls since it is designed to receive the aluminum frames of the windows.
(English version revised by Chantal Auger)
The competitors acquired the esteem, the reconnaissance and the recognition of the city of Chomedey. Even if the efforts of most competitors were not rewarded, the jury admit that it was a difficult choice.
As the purpose of this competition was to choose an architect, a personality, rather than a definitive architectural solution, the choice was based on the content, the idea of a project and its coherence with the spirit of the competition program.
The program in itself was quite flexible, maybe too flexible. On one hand, it allowed the possibility to explore various architectural schemes. On the other hand, it resulted that none of the projects presented the expected qualities. Thus, none of the projects obtained a unanimous appreciation. Please note that this is not mentioned to diminish the winner?s credit, but to honour other projects appreciated by the jury.
The jury do not claim to forge a judgement of the projects. The jury rather balanced the drawn ideas, with the limitations it involves. Some competitors presented more elaborate drawings than what was demanded by the competition program. The jury criticized that it diminished the ideas, as the aesthetics predominated on the human values.
Also, it is regrettable that most of the projects seems to have been designed in the isolation of the architect?s office, rather than in the deep comprehension of the context, the space, the land and the people. The jury noted that the competitors rarely address the architectural problem with the simplicity and the comprehension needed in an architectural competition. Thus, many young and enthusiastic architects tend to orient their projects by a certain formalism that is often unable to sustain the community life.
Perhaps the jury put too much emphasis on the urban design of the whole complex or on the integration of eventual functional elements in the civic center and the City Hall. However, the jury expressed the importance of the City Hall, which represents harmony and cohesion between the city and the society. The architectural expression of the City Hall should be coherent with the various elements composing the city; without mediocrity, but with dignity and elegance.