ÉTS Centech

Montréal’s former Dow Planetarium is transformed into a futuristic tech incubator to spark innovation.

Honouring and preserving the memory of the place, it was decided to develop the project around the concepts of revolution, axis, and the circular shape.

Several moons ago (52 to be precise), the world descended onto Montréal for the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or, as it is more commonly known, Expo ‘67. Held in the year of the Canadian Centennial, this monumental event under the theme ‘Man and His World’ hosted 62 nations and set a record for the highest single-day attendance of any 20th century global fair with 569,500 visitors on its third day.

A few years prior, the head of Dow Breweries’ board of directors—a former chemistry professor and founding Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Ottawa, plus avid amateur astronomer—convinced the beer producer (later absorbed by Molson) to create a world-class planetarium as part of the celebrations. Architectural firm David-Barott-Boulva—which also helped execute Habitat ‘67, Moshe Safdie’s LEGO-like housing complex for the exposition—was selected for the project and the chosen astronomical-themed design featured a Saturn-like structure complete with dome and surrounding rings. Constructed at Chaboillez Square, a former parking lot near the Old Port, Dow Planetarium was completed in time for Canada’s 100th anniversary at a cost of $1.2 million and saw approximately six million spectators attend over 250 productions until its final show in 2011.

Closed in 2011 after 45 years of existence and transferred to the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) by the City of Montréal, the conversion project by Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes aimed to rehabilitate this iconic building located at 1000 St. Jacques in Griffintown, in the heart of the Quartier de l’Innovation.

The building’s seemingly low-key digs—a neighbourhood now called Griffintown (named after Mary Griffin who initiated the area’s street planning in 1804; her husband, a soap manufacturer owner, went on to become the Bank of Montréal’s first clerk)—is currently the fastest evolving area in the city. Decorated by commissioned graffiti murals and filled with shuttered factories and warehouses turned modern art galleries, hip global eateries, and swank condo developments, Griffintown has become a buzzing hub of culture and creativity thanks to a decade-long master plan to revitalize the area through new businesses, parks, playgrounds, and bicycle paths.

As part of the plan’s first priority to “preserve and enhance buildings of heritage value,” the abandoned planetarium located in the neighbourhood’s Quartier de l’Innovation was passed onto Centech: the not-for-profit technological entrepreneurship centre founded by Université du Québec engineering school École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS). Following the handover, local firm Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes (MSDL) was enlisted to transform the iconic 2,000-sq.-m. structure into an incubator for start-ups.

In the center of the building is an open circular space, accessible on all sides and controlling the entire spatial organization of the building. Considered a “crucible of innovation” it is designed to be the heart of the accelerator and is intended for unplanned encounters and opportunities.

Led by architects Anik Shooner (lead partner) and Jean-Pierre LeTourneux (lead designer), the adaptive-reuse project aimed to leave the original architecture intact while introducing a co-working space that would encourage chance encounters between young entrepreneurs, the kind that often hatch innovative opportunities. Shooner and LeTourneux also faced the challenge of bringing light into a building that was intended to be obscure and opaque for previous functions such as simulation of a night sky, all the while preserving this heritage. Thus, as a starting point, the team took cues from the perpetual movements of the universe as well as navigational instruments such as the astrolabe: an intricate round brass device historically used by astronomers to identify constellations.

At the planetarium’s centre, beneath its original dome, MSDL constructed an open glass cylinder accessible from all sides to act as the main cogwheel in a configuration similar to that of a watch, making the surrounding spaces feel as though they were constantly moving around a control centre within the building’s winged layout. A concentric path wrapping this central area leads to glass-walled meeting rooms, a café, and an ‘ideation’ room. Oversized glass panels forming curved walls acting as partitions and guardrails juxtapose vertical wood slats that feature concentric circles, a nod to the overarching concept of mechanical rotation and spinning.

A coaxial circulation path leads to the café, meeting space and “ideation” room that wrap around the core circular space.

Massive wedges cutting into either side of the central volume accommodate two tapered wooden staircases—composed of curved laminated timber—that lead to an upper viewing deck. On this level, a lounge dotted with semi-private seating and pods in vibrant shades of red atop soft charcoal flooring serves as a casual meeting or work area. Throughout the building, polished concrete slabs with built-in ventilation and electromechanical components that free-up existing caisson ceilings allow for full-height glass walls, while acoustic panels and foam integrated into various volumes further the clean aesthetic.

Overall, the revamped interior is contemporary and minimal, consisting primarily of solid black or white walls, ceilings, furniture, and fixtures; interjected with exposed concrete pillars and posts to reveal the existing construction and lend an industrial feel that reflects Griffintown’s edgy style, a dramatic contrast to the planetarium’s warm and classical façade. Directly beneath the dome, however, a stark white marble slab overhead speaks to the building’s updated design while offering nostalgia and a hint of poetry: it provides a projection screen on which budding businesses can observe the cosmic movements of the sky and, perhaps one day, be inspired to reach for the stars.

Attached to this rotational movement along the main axis of the building, spaces intended for businesses run by high-level technological entrepreneurs continue this design device of concentric circles.

Photography by Stéphane Brügger