Crowd Control

Architect Natalie Dionne sips Shiraz over a lunch served on a simple, straight-lined table of strong-grained, African Shedua wood. The table is one of several she designed for Le Cartet, a combination gourmet food store, catering service and restaurant located on Montreal’s McGill Street. The elevated noise level in the newly redesigned restaurant is typical of a successful bistro packed with a lunchtime crowd of techies and artists drawn from nearby Cit Multimedia, the Old Town and surrounding upscale lofts. “As you can see,” she says, “everything in the space is very simple, very white and black because it is the people who are the colour, the animation and the form.”

A little while later, however, with the crowd considerably thinned out, it is possible to appreciate the admirable restraint Dionne has shown in converting the old commercial shop from a rather dark cavern into a relatively luminous space washed with natural light. At the same time, careful detailing and raw materials have been combined with retained structural elements to ensure a subtle but richly textured environment.

Le Cartet is on a section of McGill dividing Montreal’s Old Town from its equally historic industrial district of Faubourg des Rcollets to the west. The area’s new professional employment base has spawned the transformation of historic warehouses and factories into upscale residential lofts as well as the construction of new loft buildings along the district’s narrow, intimate streets. The emergence of a lively live/work community has been recently solidified by the wholesale makeover of McGill and the continued emergence of urbane design stores, restaurants and specialty shops.

McGill’s surviving urban fabric includes delightfully bombastic Beaux-Arts buildings along its east flank, but also, on the west side, narrow 19th-century commercial blocks. The latter boast three-part elevations, comprised of glazed ground levels perched on solid stone foundations, topped by brick middle sections and finished off with prominent cornices. Varying heights give the streetscape a pleasantly scaled sawtooth profile. Most of the long, rectangular showroom units extend from McGill through to Rue Soeurs-Grises.

Le Cartet occupies the raised ground level of one of these voluminous commercial spaces, which Dionne likens to those of New York’s Soho district. Its plan is a simple rectangle measuring approximately 100 feet from its McGill entrance to its equally transparent “backdoor” on Soeurs-Grises. Its already impressive 14-foot-high ceiling is exaggerated by a relatively narrow 26-foot width. Dionne first stripped the space to its essential volume. On the south side, a white painted brick wall is broken only by a massive galvanized door that once slid upward on an angle. Five massive timber columns march down the middle of the original space and support equally impressive beams that split out at each end to create tuning fork-shaped beams that support the facades. Generous glazing at each extremity has been retained. “The architecture,” she says, “is spare, sleek and monochromatic; its intent is to highlight or even exaggerate the exceptional volume of the space.”

Up front, the gourmet grocery section stretches across the width of the space with brightly coloured products displayed on minimalist shelving that takes its cue from the restored hardwood maple floor. Behind this space, she inserted a series of flat, powerfully textured vertical planes that stretch fully to the rear. Initially, hot-rolled steel plates form a gritty upper and lower frame for the service vestibule, divided by a solid maple counter. The steel plates become raw datum lines when they emerge as a wall, cleaved by a narrow maple bar and a narrow ribbon window, visually connecting the kitchen with the dining area. The window then morphs into a surface of slick, white glass tiles before an exit vestibule emerges at the back. “The result of this architectural intervention” Dionne says, “is a dominating, textured frame for the action, a background for the movement on both sides.”

The furnishings, as well as the architectural elements, expressly play up the idea of smooth, flat surfaces. In support of this intended aesthetic, the sheets of black steel were folded, not welded, and fixed with no apparent hardware, the wooden shelves were assembled using a concealed anchoring system, and finishes are smooth and matte. “Seeming to float free of the walls and floor, these elements are [perhaps counter-intuitively] light and ephemeral while the smooth, shiny glass tiles add a dreamy aspect to the composition,” the architect concludes. At night, clusters of naked bulbs with orange filaments, suspended from knots of black electrical wire, bathe the abundant white surfaces in an amber glow.

Le Cartet works not just because of what Dionne has done but also by what she has chosen not to do. Simple and restrained, the resulting space allows its customers, the food and the displayed products room to breathe and to become the true animators of interest. CI