Urban Renewal

Lawyers acting on their own behalf are said to have a fool for a client. Architects who design their own project, it may be said, will have a client who is never satisfied. Such adages may be droll but are also frequently inaccurate. Alain Lemay and Viateur Michaud, principals of Lemay Michaud Architecture Design, have good reason to be pleased with their self-designed offices in both Quebec City and Montreal. The former, completed in 2010, adapted a voluminous, 30-foot-high Bank of Montreal banking hall (1906) into a two-and-a-half storey studio. A mix of modern interventions with in situ architectural details and exposed structure, the office features a mezzanine detached from the walls to permit better light penetration. Similarly, their new Montreal studio involved the conversion of a historic urban industrial building into a highly functional and modern office – animated by its exposed original structure augmented with recycled found components. 

The Montreal office is located just west of the city’s heritage quartier in the Cité Multimédia district, a planned mix of adapted historic industrial structures and new buildings housing both media-related businesses and residential condominiums. Like its Quebec City twin, the new studio reuses a single-storey heritage building, but in this case a very simple red-brick factory block constructed in the early 20th century. The move was necessitated by Lemay Michaud’s emergence as one of Quebec’s larger design firms, with a staff of almost 100 that includes seven principals as well as the two founding partners.  

The relocation to the new 8,000-square-foot atelier required no moving vans, however, as the original office, a similar but smaller structure, was immediately adjacent. Not incidentally, the firm oversaw the conversion of its old office into an upscale but stripped-back restaurant fronted by a sizable and elegantly landscaped front terrace enclosed on two sides by ivy-drenched walls. The terrace neatly frames the forecourt – the understated new entrance to Lemay Michaud – cut under the northeast corner of the old factory volume. Clad in grey concrete fiberboard on its west side, this compressed exterior space leads to a glazed wall with a solid opaque door that leaves the interior lobby only partly exposed. If the exterior is minimalist in the extreme, the large light-filled lobby is designed to showcase the firm’s ability to create interiors that are rich in detail but rely on a palette of raw materials and the incorporation of found structure and leftover objects. 

The elongated lobby acts as a telescope, focussing attention toward a peek-a-boo screen, itself partly concealed by a grey pavilion. Behind the screen, a sliver of glazing fronting a raised boardroom is left visible. Dark-grey carpeting, along with the deep hues and rustic texture of the largely exposed roof structure, offsets crisp white walls. Rough lumber found casually stored across the rafters was simply left in place. A sizable industrial skylight, reconstructed with recycled wood from the building’s factory days, provides a strong wash of natural light. Halfway down on the right wall, a volume of cold-rolled steel extrudes from the wall before morphing into the reception desk, which features ultra-thin ceramic tile. The opposite side acts as a gallery wall embellished by four large black-and-white rough sketches from the firm’s projects. These constructivist-like drawings hang above the most basic of benches, a massive, clear-stained wood beam salvaged during reconstruction.   

With the reception desk tucked off to the side, the real emphasis is placed on the visitor sitting area, the enigmatic screen and the partly visible boardroom behind. The skylight acts almost like a spotlight to highlight the composition. Behind three of Brent Cordner’s 2002 Felt armchairs, the factory’s original wall of beige brick with a residue of grey paint left in place is punctured by an opening framed in black I-bar. A glass partition in the opening encloses the raised boardroom. (The change in elevation was the result of raising the back half of the floor a little over three feet to permit underground parking.) Stairs to this space are screened by a massive, reclaimed zinc panel door with some of the back panels removed to “reveal its wood core and tell the story of its composition,” says partner Louise Dupont as we tour the studio. The result is a layered tableau of subtle colours, varied textures and industrial archeology. 

Behind the boardroom and stretching across the back mezzanine level is a voluminous open space. Again, the roof structure remains exposed, as does the found-in-place I-beams that permit the columnless free span. This functional
and polyvalent space houses the firm’s archives, library and technical lab. Considerable natural light floods in from another large industrial skylight. This feature permits testing of colours and materials in natural light conditions; conversely, a wide array of lighting types installed in other parts of the space facilitates artificial-light testing. A large staff lunch room, a grand open studio (sans drawing tables in this computer age) and a smaller boardroom all feature extra-high ceilings with exposed structure, large white boards for creative speculation and a similar palette of limited materials. But they also boast large windows opening to the sidewalk.     

The almost gritty industrial yet refined aesthetic of the office reflects the firm’s best large-scale projects of the last decade. This includes the 2000 conversion of a Brutalist office building into the award winning Hôtel Le Germain Montréal, a strong signature design for the Alta Hotel chain; and the much acclaimed Hôtel Quartier in Quebec City. Most recently, the Calgary iteration of the Le Germain hotel has provided the city with an architectural landmark marked also by a finely honed modernist interior.   cI