Chaos theory

Montreal’s bucolic L’Île-des-Soeurs, or Nuns’ Island, was the isolated island retreat of the venerable Congrégation religieuses de Notre-Dame for over 250 years until 1957. Only in 1962 was its St. Lawrence River “moat” breached by a direct link from the Champlain Bridge, and this remains the island’s sole connection to the Island of Montreal. Not surprisingly, this once quiet enclave for service-oriented nuns has emerged as a series of upscale bucolic garden city communities of detached homes and townhouses as well as luxury mid- and high rises. Multiple, elegantly landscaped traffic circles settle the traffic as it ambles down a series of curving boulevards. And these are boulevards in more than just name.  They boast well-maintained landscaping, perimeter lines of mature trees, and lush grass medians planted with their own trees and bushes. One boulevard even hosts Mies van der Rohe’s 1969 ultra-sophisticated gas station, which has undergone a Governor General’s Award–winning adaptive restoration as a community centre. (Not to mention the Great Man’s three 1962 apartment buildings on the Island.)

Not far from the Mies landmark, at 3000 Boulevard René-Lévesque, sits restaurateurs Corinna Pop and Carl Chevalier’s lively Chez Carl Tapas & BBQ, realized by veteran Montreal designer Jean de Lessard. While Chez Carl occupies the base of a rather nondescript modern office building, it sits back from the street and is raised moderately above by a landscaped bank. All this allows for a generous open-air terrace with a view across to a pleasant residential neighbourhood. 

The modest ,1,229-square-feet eatery with just fewer than 70 seats, says de Lessard as we lunch on exquisite calamari among other tapas dishes, was originally a French restaurant with a decidedly box-like, cafeteria feel that “cried out to be recoded.”  Instead, he wants people, whether in an office, shop or restaurant, to feel strong emotions in his spaces and believes they relish at least a dollop of chaos. The owners, who he labels as dynamic clients, fortunately wanted something crazy and colourful that would serve as a fun environment. De Lessard also sees a need to reinforce what he calls the duality of the individual and the community. In a restaurant setting this means patterns of diverse space occupation that are manipulated to ensure diners have their own space but remain socially connected. Finally, both he and his clients wanted “something sexy yet comfortable enough for the more sedate local affluent patrons while also attractive to a new younger crowd.”

Despite Chez Carl’s relatively small size, de Lessard set out to “occupy the space architecturally” –– not surprising, as he had originally obtained an architecture technician diploma from Cégep de Lévis-Lauzon. To do so, he turned to his interest in Fractal Theory and its premise that forms, as they are recursively defined into ever-smaller sections, appear identical or at least similar to the larger ones of which they are a part. Add in the unexpected posited by Chaos Theory, however, and a simple beginning may result in considerable complexity. 

More simply put, he adapts a physical language of fractured or “variable” geological-like geometries that are rearranged to produce discrete, physically irregular spaces to be inhabited within Chez Carl, all resulting in a sort of “programmed chaos.” Interestingly, one can see in his approach the idea of making present the fractured tectonic plates below that comprise the St. Lawrence Plain and slide under one another to generate periodic earthquakes in the area.

De Lessard set about to split apart the space, starting with the entrance, in order to create individualized dining spaces in which each is then “separately modified so there is a different feeling in each section.” First experienced is the restaurant’s entrance, a deep arch composed of 3D angled triangles that provides a clear transition from the terrace. Through the arch, one is confronted by a long bar, a welcoming holdover from the previous restaurant.  Above, an irregularly patterned canopy of pine, held up by ultra-slim steel columns, zigzags to the left and right. The mishmash of triangular shards gives the flat, floating ceiling plane a distinct kinetic feel.  

Just as this treatment generates both animation and varied ceiling heights, a series of inserted raised platforms demarcated by waist-high maple walls creates a lively topology. These platforms create contained, asymmetrical islands of intimacy while allowing visual connection between areas, thus sustaining a community of diners. The use of hard and soft woods left in their natural tones, says de Lessard, is a deliberate nod to a Québécois identity with its forests. This, along with the gritty steel poles, provides a certain “raw materiality coupled with urban chic.” 

Two of the platform pods are partially embraced by wall screens, what he calls “strucptures” or structure-sculptures, composed of angled plywood triangles covered in plush red, purple and pink Danish felt. In addition to their visual, tactile and space-defining roles, “these sculptural walls are as practical as they are aesthetic because of their decibel absorbing quality.” (De Lessard has no fear of strong colours as witnessed, for example, by his award-winning work for the communication firm Upperkut, the restaurant Raso, and the project software firm Sponsorium.) 

A connecting wall tissue of floor-to-ceiling blackboards offsets these kinetic splashes of colour while serving as a convenient way of recording specials, new additions to the menu and featured wines. You don’t need a huge budget to create flash and emotion, he says, pointing to a freestanding, irregularly shaped “box” clad in light-fracturing copper that acts as the restaurant’s low-cost wine cellar while also contributing to spatial definition. Light from the restaurant’s large, curtain-free windows creates patterns on the shiny metal that fluctuate as the light changes or the patron moves.

Chez Carl Tapas & BBQ, modest in size but determined to sizzle, provides a destination hot spot in a cool suburban neighbourhood.  cI