The past haunts every aspect of life in Quebec City.
You can trace it from the ghostly footprints of historic stone foundations in the tourist-swarmed Place Royale to the motto inscribed on every Quebec license plate: "Je me souviens."
Few North American citizens hold a more keen and constant awareness of their history than the residents of Quebec. Which makes it a perfect test case for an architectural project aimed at bringing a section of the city surrounded by history firmly into the 21st century.
That project is the Office for Metropolitan Architecture's new Pierre Lassonde Pavilion, a three-tiered, glass-walled addition to the National Fine Arts Museum of Quebec set to open to the public on Friday:
The project represented a major challenge both for the city and for OMA - the firm founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas that has been selected to design a renovation and expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Located in the center of an historically important park (the Battlefields Park) at the edge of the St. Lawrence River, the museum's campus contained different architectural styles even before the addition: a neoclassical temple that opened in 1933; an 18th-century prison converted into offices in the late-1980s; and a glass-walled Grand Hall that opened in the early 1990s.
What's more, the new building had to contend with the nearby St. Dominique church tower, an assertive piece of 20th-century architecture that designers had to be careful not to overwhelm.
How well the new pavilion completes that task is an open question. But after a tour through the city and its landmarks, a few things seem evident about how OMA has approached the project:
- It plays off the characteristic verticality of Quebec City, a landscape layered with hills, staircases and vertigo-inducing paths.
- Its frosted glass, which varies in opacity from level to level, seems to mirror the landscape of the city. That goes for summer, when it seems you can't look anywhere without catching a glimpse of the broad St. Lawrence River, and winter, when the elements will make the building look like some sort of fanciful snow-sculpture.
- Its public function is front-and-center, with an entire ground-floor space devoted to events:
One more thing is sure about the space, which should bode well for this city soaked in history: Locals are loving it. Word from passport agents, cab drivers and all those people journalists interrogate within 10 seconds of landing anywhere is universally supportive: (It's worth noting that Quebec, for all its seemingly provincial leanings, is not devoid of forward-looking art and architecture. In fact, it has plenty.)
Quebec - the only walled city in North America in the province that instructs its residents always to remember its past - seems to be ready for the future.
Stay tuned for more, including a look at the interior of the space and interviews with lead architect Shohei Shigematsu - who will also lead the Albright-Knox project - and others.