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Quebec museum holds lessons for the Albright-Knox

QUEBEC CITY, Canada – At the edge of a park on the St. Lawrence River, a trio of stacked glass rectangles emerges from the ground like a Tetris block dropped from the sky.

The terraces of the first two tiers are covered in native plants that mimic the surrounding landscape. Viewed from above, the structure looks like someone slipped an enormous car jack into the earth and lifted up the park to make room for the building.

The Quebec National Museum of Fine Arts’ new Pierre Lassonde Pavilion, designed by Shohei Shigematsu of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, doesn’t just mirror the park; it’s actually made of the park.

And though the results will be different, Shigematsu said he hopes to take an even more organic approach in Buffalo, where he will lead the design of the largest cultural building project in the city’s history: an $80 million expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Delaware Park.

The Quebec museum’s location within a park in a city saturated with history, as well as the patchwork of heritage buildings that surrounds it, makes the museum a relevant test case for the Albright-Knox project. The museum also had a similar budget – about 100 million Canadian dollars to the Albright-Knox’s target of $80 million. And it had a similar goal to double the museum’s gallery space.

The Quebec museum expansion defers more to its surroundings, in comparison to some of the firm’s more high-profile projects. This seems to have less to do with the ego of the architects or the museum staff who worked together to conceive it, and more with sending a message to the public: Come hang out with us. We have cool stuff.

“The most iconic move we made together with the museum was to make the museum very transparent, because museums tend to be closed and introverted boxes,” Shigematsu said in his remarks to artists and media during a preview of the space last week. “So the art is not just about viewing, but it’s a catalyst to connect people to nature and between new and old.”

In Quebec’s case, the old includes the St. Dominique church, whose monastery was demolished to make way for the building in 2011. It also includes a hulking Beaux Arts temple, which opened in 1933, a converted 18th-century prison and a central glass pavilion added in 1991.

Toward transparency

If civic architecture is an expression of a city’s aspirations, the new pavilion is evidence of Quebec City’s resolve to step outside of its history. It’s also evidence of a move toward public openness – also a desire of Albright-Knox leaders.

Along the city’s Grande Allée, the ceiling of the uppermost step floats more than 30 feet above the heads of pedestrians, who have been casting curious looks at the building and its dramatic atrium since the project broke ground in 2013.

The building’s airy indoor plaza – featuring a cantilever more than 80 feet high, as well as a restaurant and seating areas for visitors – grew out of the museum’s desire to integrate more directly into the city. It also grew out of citizens’ appetite for more public-friendly architecture.

“It’s the capital of Quebec, having a lot of authoritarian concrete buildings that were built in the 1970s and ’80s,” Shigematsu said in an interview. “People had a lot of negative reactions to those. So just by conceiving a museum in glass, they were so happy because they never, ever wanted to see another solid building.”

While the building appears solid from certain angles, its interior spaces are shot through with transparent elements.

On the uppermost tier, northern light filters through semi-opaque glass into the museum’s new gallery for Inuit art. The gallery’s function – to display the recent emergence of Inuit sculpture in an atmosphere bathed in northern light – was part of the design process from the start, according to the museum’s curator of early art, Daniel Drouin.

Elsewhere, windows have been punched out in strategic locations to give visitors views of the park and city that look like landscape paintings. A rectangular staircase that connects all three levels pops out of the side of the building, giving park visitors glimpses into the space and making museum visitors feel as if they are floating from one exhibition to the next.

Shigematsu said the exterior looks “almost too simple,” but that simplicity dissolves when you enter the building.

“When you are inside you notice the kind of richness of the interior space but also the richness of the context with very simple means like windows,” Shigematsu said. “It didn’t take too much of an architectural move to actually reflect the context into the building.”

Shigematsu’s trademark lies in the simple gesture that solves a client’s problem in a few graceful strokes.

“A bold move for me is not about a spectacular move, but a very clear move that really fixes the problem in a single or a couple of steps that are so robust that the concept will not be hindered by materiality or minor changes in the future that always happen in architecture,” he said.

Project parallels

The design and construction of the new pavilion came with challenges.

Line Ouellet, director of the museum since 2011, said controversy about the project was most intense during its first phase, long before the first shovel touched ground.

Quebec residents were concerned with the cost and feared it might upset the balance of the campus. And they were angry that the plan involved demolishing a historic monastery, one that museum leaders deemed architecturally inferior.

That characterization didn’t sit well with the more than 1,000 residents who signed a petition against the demolition. The leader of the campaign, architect Phyllis Lambert, wrote in a letter to former museum director John Porter that the decision sent “a negative message about heritage preservation,” according to the Montreal Gazette.

Those concerns dissipated, Ouellet said, as the museum worked to demonstrate its vision for the project through public exhibitions and events. Starting in 2010, it organized a show featuring models and renderings from all of the architectural firms on its list.

“The first stages were very difficult,” she said. “The more we had to show to the population, the easier it became.”

The Albright-Knox, by contrast, is only beginning the conceptual design phase with OMA and Shigematsu. Renderings and models will not be publicly released until at least next year, as Albright-Knox board president Thomas R. Hyde has argued that it would make no sense to publicize concepts the museum “has no intention of building.”

While Albright-Knox leaders have not released any plans, they have downplayed the architectural importance of the gallery’s Clifton Hall. That building, designed by E.B. Green and later modified to obscure much of its exterior character, seems a likely candidate for the wrecking ball.

During the construction process in Quebec City, the design changed based on budget and space concerns. An original interior staircase was moved to the outside to make way for a strong, copper-plated column that contains the building’s elevator. Pricey floor tiles were scrapped in favor of cheaper local granite. The limited budget didn’t allow for extensive testing of the glass, so OMA and the museum had to hope for the best.

But, Ouellet said, they were never worried.

“When you have such a high-quality studio like OMA, you must know that for them, it is their specialty to envision every small detail in order to make them at their best,” she said. “They will never let you go.”

Tempered excitement

In Quebec, as in any historic city contending with an infusion of contemporary architecture, reaction to the new building is mixed.

During the opening week, which culminated with a public opening and a visit from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the sense of excitement about the building was palpable. Even airport passport agents were spreading word about the project to visitors.

On Thursday morning, passersby slowed to peer into the building’s lobby.

“I’ve watched the evolution and I love it,” neighborhood resident Francine Labrecque said. “I think it is a great equilibrium between the past and the future … It was not an easy project, but they worked a lot on it. It takes a vision to do that, to have an equilibrating perspective. It’s really contemporary, and that’s OK. We are in our time.”

Another neighborhood resident who gave only his first name, Claude, was less impressed, but left open the possibility that he would change his mind.

“For me, it’s medium,” he said. “Maybe when I see inside. But actually, actually medium. Not bad, not good, but medium.”

Same goals

While Shigematsu’s Quebec project bears similarities to his task at the Albright-Knox, there are differences.

The slice of Delaware Park in which the gallery sits is a smaller and more challenging site than Quebec’s enormous Battlefields Park. The presence of Gordon Bunshaft’s 1962 addition next to E.B. Green’s 1905 neoclassical building already creates a dichotomy between new and old, likely calling for a different kind of architecture.

And, perhaps most importantly, the architect and gallery staff already agree that the narrow corridors of Bunshaft’s building may no longer serve the gallery’s collection.

“You can’t preserve something that is not working,” Shigematsu said, stressing that he does not know what form the Albright-Knox expansion will take. “Let’s make it work first and then preserve it.”

For Ouellet and the staff of the Quebec museum, their new building represents not only an opportunity to display more of the museum’s vast collection, but to send a new invitation to the residents of its home city.

The goal in Buffalo is the same, though the results will probably differ.

“It’s a new definition. It’s really welcoming. We are seeing architecture in another manner,” Ouellet said. “But it’s still top-rank, like churches were. This is the standard you are looking for.”


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