Rest in peace

Rest in peace

Jacques Bilodeau’s Dallaire Memoria design is a non-traditional take on funeral parlours. Dark stuffiness and elaborate antiques are left behind, in favour of a light, simple palette and fine, subtle detailing.

Several years ago, I wrote an article on Montreal designer Jacques Bilodeau’s own live/work space in a converted industrial building in northeast Montreal. The raw, geometrically linear aesthetic combined cold-rolled and stainless steel, industrial-looking doors with clinically functional hospital faucets and sinks in a space largely devoid of colour. It seemed a fitting home for a designer whose own web page states that his work is located on the periphery somewhere between art, architecture and design. The unit’s long stainless steel dining table, I concluded only half in jest, was eminently suitable for a postmortem on the dinner chicken.

One might suggest this affinity for highly functional plumbing accessories normally found in a surgery, combined with slick industrial surfaces (and a sense that the whole place could be easily hosed down), would make Bilodeau a prime candidate to design a funeral parlour. Quite the contrary. The mortuary business generally embraces comforting tradition, as if reproduction colonial or mock-Tudor decor can best soothe the pain of the grieving. Yet the Quebec native, whose edgy but compelling work consistently pushes Montreal’s design envelope, has recently completed the second Memoria funeral home for established firm Alfred Dallaire.

His selection to design the new Laurier Avenue West Dallaire Memoria, in Montreal, was no accident. The firm was founded in 1931 and in 2002 was split between the founder’s grandson and his granddaughter. Jocelyne Lgar promptly steered her 11 Dallaire Memoria operations toward innovative services and a modern, almost hip image. Her first Memoria renovation, on St-Laurent Boulevard, in 2004 had already created quite a stir. If its voluminous, light-filled memorial hall, detailed in a respectful Modernism was not enough, this space is overlooked by a second-storey catwalk that links to the very urbane Salon Bibliocaf.

Lgar has decided views on how we should approach death in a modern society. When the salon hosted “The Feast of the Dead in Mexico: A Space for Celebration” in 2004, she told the review Frontires, “We do not confine ourselves to organizing funerals because we feel that people are looking for new ways, other ways of approaching death, so we make our places of reflection open to all kinds of initiatives.” calls her a “standout in the world of mourning…an artist of the soul.” In addition to funeral homes, her Les editions du passage publishes books such as La Part sans poids de nous-memes, on the Paris-based American sculptor Muriel Englehart, best known for her elegant angels. Lgar has also produced two films on the famous French painter Guido Molinari, including The Last Conversation, which bore witness to his final struggle with cancer. Both artists and their work play key roles in the second Memoria.

After completing a loft apartment for Lgar’s daughter, Bilodeau (with Nature humaine Architectes) was offered the chance to rework her grandfather’s original head office, a modest, International- style 1950s pavilion, tucked into the well-modulated facades on one of Canada’s most erudite shopping streets. From Laurier, one enters through massive glass doors set in a wall of transparent glass before ascending a broad staircase of stone, minimally marked with a balustrade formed from a single curling strand of metal. As this glazed entrance space is flooded in strong southern light and the stone is white, the act of rising up away from the hubbub of the street is surprisingly cheerful. At the top of the stairs, a

One of five floor-to-ceiling sliding panels, crafted from rosewood from the original building, opens the salons to the reception area.

There is gentle tension in the room, between the warmth of the space generated by soft cream, mellow beige and warm grey tones, and the decidedly Bilodeauinfluenced sense of rigorous simplicity and linearity. The envelope of the space is absorbed from the original design, including large wall panels of travertine marble and limestone. Their planar quality is sustained by using only small recessed lighting in the high ceiling.

Around a substantial void with stairs descending to an archival level, Bilodeau has wrapped a reception desk that doubles as a display counter. Across the back is a bar used for receptions after services in the salons. All these elements are a series of interwoven horizontal and vertical planes in either rich, sonorous rosewood or patina metal that slip and slide together in Bilodeau’s signature overlapping style. Craft contractors Franois Broud (metal) and Stphane Bilodeau (wood) have ensured particularly fine, crisp execution of details, such as the brass sleeve used to connect the desk to the display counter. A large rosewood bookcase with white shelves dominates the east wall.

Parallel to the reception area are two salons that retain simplicity and exhibit limited religious iconography. Their entrances are powerfully signalled by five rosewood sliding doors, which despite reaching from floor to ceiling, never seem heavy or ponderous. These rooms have the sense of elegant, contemporary living rooms with modern sectional sofas, Le Corbusier armchairs and seating recycled from the original salons -but with a quieter, more neutral upholstery. Furnishings, including a very simple broad wooden platform that serves either as a coffin stand or a sitting bench, are designed by Bilodeau.

The front salon is called Englehart after the sculptor; at its entrance stands one of her angel pieces, sensuous but not cloying. A thick bar of vibrant living green is provided by a real hedge placed, by Bilodeau, in a simple trough planter, clad in his favoured thick industrial felt. On the ceiling, a digital projector permits film to be used during a service, with the cream wall acting as a screen. In the Molinari salon there is an enormous canvas by the artist on one wall, its deep, enigmatic blues creating an apparent window into the universe. Three small Molinaris also adorn the wall next to the bar.

Memoria’s motto is “Every life is a story,” and Jacques Bilodeau has created an elegant page on which to writ large each one. cI