Double vision

Montreal today, like no other North American city, exudes a European sensibility. There is an imbedded ethos that a city is an integrated social-ecosystem in which hard boundaries – between communities or “quartiers,” between the inside and the outside, between the public and private realms – are to be avoided. From the 1960s into the ’80s, however, this was deeply threatened by systematic efforts to level inner-city communities and by the construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway, a brutal gash that bifurcated the urban fabric. Perhaps ironically, an extended economic downturn curtailed this senseless process and over the last two decades, a quite remarkable reknitting together of the urban core has been taking place.

The firm of Daoust Lestage has played no small part in this process. A unique combination of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, industrial designers and graphic artists, under the leadership of architects Renée Daoust and Réal Lestage, the firm designs buildings whose interiors have a yoga-like simplicity of detail but are delightfully transparent, full of light and seek an aggressive engagement of the urban landscape.

Indeed, that exterior landscape is often of its own making, most famously at the Centre CDP Capital, the centerpiece in the Daoust Lestage-designed Quartier international de Montréal district. Spanning the Ville-Marie Expressway, the two-block long “horizontal skyscraper” is bracketed at each end by its sumptuous Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, featuring Riopelle’s dramatic fire-and-water fountain and the revitalized Square Victoria. “We are so preoccupied by the genius loci of where we build,” Renée Daoust told me recently. “A building must clearly relate to its environment. In the city this means we like our interiors to visually project their users into a high quality surrounding urban environment.” 

The firm’s latest contribution to Montreal’s evolution is Place des festivals; part of the city’s growing Quartier des spectacles, it stretches two blocks along the west side of Place des Arts and can accommodate up to 25,000 spectators for such events as the Montreal Jazz Festival. Dominated by four towering, bent light standards, the plaza is split between a hard “mineral carpet” and softer terrace of grass and trees. The former, however, is almost completely interspersed with interactive fountains from which computer choreographed water dances. At night, the water is lit from underneath in red and white. 

The Place’s eastern boundary is rue Jeanne-Mance along the Musée d’art contemporian. This street has been significantly narrowed to widen the gallery-side sidewalk to 46 feet. Along this relatively narrow tract, Daoust Lesage has inserted, end to end, two slim volumes – vitrines habitués – that appear almost like elongated transnational railway dining cars temporarily parked between a museum-cum-gare and its grand plaza. Both contain restaurants, chef Norman Laprise’s Brasserie T! on the south and Carlos Ferreira’s F Bar to the north. The sleek aluminum skin of these tubes is sliced open vertically by clear glazing that extends up and completely across the roofs. Under a sizable beam, both restaurants also have a large expanse of glass sliding doors that face west onto the Place. The beam supports a brilliant red terrace canopy, its colour, states Daoust, recalling the area’s checkered history as a red-light district. Like in Paris, heaters are integrated into the frame to allow outside dining in the shoulder seasons.

The entrances on the restaurants’ south ends are walls of glass designed, says Daoust, to dematerialize the facades. An articulated roof canopy, its underside painted orange for Brasserie T! and blue for F Bar, confirms the point of entry. Once inside, a bar stretches partly along the eastern museum-side wall and this element creates a niche dining area next to the door, a sort of small fish bowl that projects unsuspecting client visually into the outside. 

The steel frame of the 13-foot-wide tubes is completely concealed so that only a sleek skin of aluminum and glass is visible. An exterior, raised arch glides over each of the volumes, deftly concealing ventilation vents for the below-ground kitchens. Both restaurants are primarily lit by lights either recessed in or extruded from a single “beam” that stretches along the two spaces. The interior white surfaces remain minimalist, but reveals designed to accommodate the dimensions of the aluminum panels subtly articulate the concealed structure. The wash of light across the white surfaces and within the deep cuts of the windows creates its own play of light and shadow. To create warmer hues, Brazilian Ipe wood, the same dark rich flooring found in the CDP atrium, was used. The narrow dimensions of the elongated space ensure all the tables are closely associated with windows.

The individuality of each restaurant is established primarily by the furniture used and the design of the bars. In Brasserie T! designer JP Viau uses contemporary wood-topped tables and composite chairs of neutral shades. In contrast, the gridded shelving behind the bar and the divider separating off access to the below-ground service area are a cheeky mix of royal purple, orange and black. (White on orange is used by graphic designer Taxi for the restaurant’s signage.) Yves Montpetit uses a more traditional palette in F Bar, employing trompe-l’œil of traditional Portuguese tiles on the bar to reflect Ferreira’s origins.

The confined spaces of the two restaurants mandate sleek, simply adorned surfaces and limited interventions. But the real animator of these interior spaces is the exterior. By day, the Place des festivals, alive with people co-mingling with the dancing waters, provides a continuous show for diners, while overhead the visible sky changes colour and form as the weather changes.  At night, the choreographed water becomes a spectacle of shape-shifting colour while diners in the restaurants emerge as highly visible “actors” to those on the square. Like at the nearby theatres, the age-old pantomime of seeing and being seen plays out across a spectacular, multilayered stage.  cI