Urban renewal

Not so long ago, architecture had a significant role to play in Canadian banking. Many community branch offices held pride of place on important street corners and were frequently rendered in creative variations of Greek and Roman temples. As a model, the Greek temple’s porous perimeter surrounding the naos, a solid exclusionary block containing the sacred deity’s image, seemed fitting. The more profane Romans took it a step further by also using the temple’s centre block, or cella, as a secure treasury. Modern banking simply completed the secularization process.

Even the advent of International Style Modernism did not abandon this model as is evident in the adaptive reuse of a long unused 1961 bank branch in the Quebec City neighbourhood of Saint-Roche. This stand-alone banking hall now houses the Quebec City offices of ABCP – Architecture et Urbanisme, which was recently short-listed for a Prix d’excellence en architecture de l’Ordre des architectes du Qubec 2006-07.

While the 75-by-22-foot dimensions of the plan of this minimalist stone and glass box hardly constitutes classicism’s “golden rectangle” (1:1.6 ratio), the double-height building clearly evokes a stylized temple. Its largely glazed street-facing width is an open and transparent pronaos, or front porch, while along Saint-Joseph, seven sidewalk-to-roof windows edged in dark cast stone strongly suggest the march of side columns in a peripteral-style temple. But for partner-in-charge Bernard Serge Gagn, the new offices primarily offered a chance to reflect in its own offices the principles underpinning ABCP’s design practice.

These principles start with deeply entrenched notions of the importance of urban regeneration and environmental recycling – or, in other words, with how a building’s architecture can contribute to restoring an area’s civic health and its suitability to be efficiently adapted and re-used rather than demolished. In 1995, not long after forming, ABCP was commissioned to complete an urban study of Saint-Roche, an area of physical and economic decay. “The idea,” Gagn explains in an interview, “was to propose an urban reoccupation and from the start we took up residency in the area to be part of this revitalization.”

The unused bank branch was one building identified in the study as a potential regenerative landmark with its prominent location on Langelier Boulevard, which connects Quebec City’s lower town to its upper district. Its existing glazed curtain wall “porch” and generous side windows ensured openness to the street, a characteristic that met another principle of ABCP’s practice. “This guaranteed,” Gagn continues, “that unlike most architecture firms we can be plugged into the city with our work, our people, our architecture models and even our drawings visible to even the casual passer-by.”

Once the interior was stripped of a small mezzanine and its dropped ceiling, Gagn had a completely open volume with a generous 18-foot ceiling with which to work. His approach was to employ a minimalist intervention that works with the existing morphology of the building while combining simple materials, particularly wood, steel and glass, in ways that that are straightforward and give full measure to their rich natural colours. “Our interventions are straightforward enough to allow an easy reading of the additions and to avoid conceptual ambiguity,” he insists. But, in fact, he has introduced manipulated volumes, juxtapositions of transparency and opacity and a playing with perception that adds considerable richness to the modest space.

Given the space’s double height, a steel structure mezzanine with a thin underside exposed deck of perforated steel overlaid by a fir floor was angled along the entire south side. Widening as it stretches toward the back of the hall, its open upper floor generates subspaces that accommodate small working groups. It also creates a unique perspective effect as you enter into the reception area, which adds a neatly dynamic complexity. This configuration permitted the two-storey northern windows – which not incidentally open at the top to vent heat – to be free of obstruction. This ensures the hall is full of diffused light that helps create, according to Gagn, a convivial and stimulating working environment.

Underneath the mezzanine, although not angled, stretch closed offices for the partners. Unlike a temple’s naos, however, these are far from being solid holders of sacred idols. Instead, they utilize floor-to-ceiling butted glass inserted between the mezzanine’s thin columns. I-beam cross bars have birch in-fill panels creating concealed channels for wiring, thus supporting the hall’s clean uncluttered lines.

If bright red linseed oil linoleum visually delineates the public reception area, the office’s defining element is a self-supporting wall of orange-tinged raw steel. This almost sculpture-like totem conceals the staircase to the mezzanine and acts as an intimacy screen for the closed offices located behind. This latter function, however, is cheekily subverted by a peek-a-boo cut out. The basement also contains a secondary workshop that is effectively naturally lit by having a glass block floor above.

The firm, which includes LEED accredited professionals, considers healthy and environmentally responsible design a key practice principle. With its new studio, this started with a location close to public transportation and the provision of bicycle racks and showers. “Environmental durability” was sought by placing emphasis on preserving as much as possible of existing site resources while recycling sustainable materials from the firm’s previous office. “Other green practices,” reports Gagn, “included the diversion of demolition wastes, use of a reusable steel structure, low water consumption equipment, manual lighting controls with maximal natural light, natural ventilation and the use of low VOC emission materials.”

The renovation and reuse of the old bank building by ABCP is a modest demonstration of Gagn’s own debt to the work of Carlo Scarpa and the Italian architect’s life-long interest in retaining and reconciling the historic urban artifact with modern minimalism. While the new design studio may not be as ambitious as Scarpa’s famous Castelvecchio Museum in Verona (1956), it suceeds in quietly showcasing the firm’s concern for sustaining urban history but within the context of a contemporary and environmentally responsible aesthetic.