No Joke

Toronto, Canada’s self-appointed epicentre, may not forgive me for saying so, but when it comes to original creativity Montreal frequently comes out on top. While the former all too often seeks to promote cultural arts “as good as” New York, London or other so-called world-class cities, the latter prefers to set new standards.

Quebec culture has also always taken humour as very serious business. As reported by CBC’s Patricia Bailey this July, a 2004 study byl’Association des professionnels de l’industrie de l’humour (APIH) found that “stand-up comedy is growing faster than any other performing art in Quebec.” Montreal’s July-long Just for Laughs festival (Juste Pour Rire), launched in 1983 for French comedy and expanded to include English in 1985, is now the largest such festival in the world. Included in its program are spoken and non-verbal acts at both outdoor and indoor venues, as well as Comedia, a comedy-film festival added in 1996. “Although Juste Pour Rire attracts spectators from around the world,” Wikipedia reports, “many of those in the audience are talent scouts, booking agents, producers and managers from the entertainment industry. Performing at the festival is one of the biggest opportunities for undiscovered talent to showcase their act in front of industry professionals.”

In 1988, seven years after Cirque de Soleil prompted the founding of the National Circus School, Just for Laughs initiated its own L’cole nationale de l’humour. Since 1993, the humour school has existed separately from the festival as a non-profit foundation, managed by a board that includes a wide range of respected Quebec media representatives. While its modest new 10,000-square-foot urban “campus” at 2120 Sherbrooke West may not rival that of the Circus School’s 75,000-square-foot facility (Lapointe, Magne et Associs, 2003) – at Tohu – The Cit des arts du cirque, in north-end Montreal – it has its own particular sophisticated charm. Designed by Les Architectes FABQ, it demonstrates design-partner Eric Gauthier’s ongoing commitment to a function-based minimalism enriched by light and fresh, vibrant colour.

The school is located on the 7th floor of what Gauthier terms a standard, very bland 1960s office tower, albeit one which already housed a number of other cultural institutions. “When I first saw it,” he says, “I just could not see how it would work for a cultural institution.” He is perhaps a bit too harsh, as the building’s design and plan offered particularly appropriate raw material for Gauthier’s approach. Its floor plate is composed of two offset towers, linked at their corners by a service shaft and, true to its Bauhaus paternity, the revealed concrete structural frame is in-filled with almost floor to ceiling glazing. As such, the split floor plan provided two distinct light filled blocks once they were stripped back to “tabula rasa” for the new facility.

A two-year program is offered for both comedians and humour writers based on considerable individual work with a teaching staff of recognized practitioners. The school’s pedagogical approach, according to its website, relies on creating the “difficult conditions in the labour market,” including frequent “shows” involving diverse media. Gauthier’s mandate, therefore, was to insert four flexible seminar classrooms with an additional four smaller rooms for individual instruction, a space for computer workstations and a modest-sized “practicum” performance theatre. School administrative facilities, as well as three offices for the transient teaching staff and an informal bistro, were also mandated.Right and inset Vibrant colours play a central role in the school’s design, but the reception area is kept cool and transparent. Opposite The bistro is marked by a minimalist aesthetic, allowing natural light, views to the dynamic city and rich colours to provide character and animation.

One tower has been designed as the teaching wing, with all instruction areas on the perimeter surrounding the technology lab. Far from hermetic spaces, these simple rooms, pared back to their concrete shell and painted white, are filled with natural light and open to the dynamic city. Along the floor’s glazed south wall, parallel to the hallway, is the

caf, minimalist in detail and bracketed – by a grey wall punctured by an orange-tinged window – onto a small kitchen and a blackboard covered wall for impromptu writing or cartooning.

Gauthier’s major intervention was the addition of broad bands of sherbet-toned colours. These animate all the classroom floors and are used vertically to define the interior computer room “box” and classroom doors. Similar bands of yellow/orange/green stripes on pivoting doors are found in his recent award-winning Maison de la Culture Maisonneuve; they were inspired by the work of internationally renowned Montreal painter Guido Molinari (1933-2004), an early proponent of Quebec’s Les Platicians School. “Colours, transparency and rhythmic sequences,” Gauthier explains, “were used to introduce ambiguity and perceptual complexity to produce open, dynamic and vibrant spaces for the students.”

His preference for light and colour stems from his experience with Nordic modernism. In addition, his cultural institutions are frequently “portraits” of their directors and, in this case, the school reflects the colourful, cheerful character of founder Louise Richer. To this Gauthier adds a desire to create a light, almost delicate environment in contradistinction to the heavy, vandal-proof response frequently used against the high-energy atmosphere of institutions for young people. “Harsh environments,” he concludes, “encourage harsh behavior.”

The second tower contains both the theatre and administrative offices. While the former, taking up a corner of the floor plate, remains largely raw and exposed with heavy curtains to create a black box when required, the administration and public reception area is the school’s most elegantly cool space. The broad, neutral-toned reception area runs between the glazed perimeter wall and an administration office and document room, contained in an almost seamless glass box embellished with stencilled graphics. This transparency is broken by a band of metal, punctuated by a horizontal service window that wraps up and over the painted concrete ceiling. Colour only bleeds through from the striped office floor and from the doors of the teachers’ offices down a side hall. Heat cannons along the bulkheads provide an extra level of functional detail.

There’s no kitsch, no cheap jokes in Gauthier’s L’cole nationale de l’humour, just a fresh liveliness producing a convincing punch line.