The Living Museum: Montreal’s Biodome

Montreal-based architecture studio KANVA has revamped the Biodome, a Canadian science museum, into a space that maximizes the value of the building’s architectural heritage.

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

Housed in the former Velodrome, and constructed for the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, the new Biodome is composed of massive skylight panels that infuse an abundance of natural light. The carving of a new core combined with the demolition of the particularly low ceiling at the entrance of the building allows visitors to appreciate the impressive scale of the existing space.

After winning an international architectural competition in 2014, KANVA, co-founded by Rami Bebawi and Tudor Radulescu, was commissioned for the $25 million project by Space for Life, the body charged with overseeing operations of the Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium, and Botanical Garden.

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

“Our mandate was to enhance the immersive experience between visitors and the museum’s distinct ecosystems, as well as to transform the building’s public spaces,” said Rami Bebawi, a partner of KANVA and the project’s lead architect. “In doing so, we proudly embraced the role that the Biodome plays in sensitizing humans to the intricacies of natural environments, particularly in the current context of climate change and the importance of understanding its effects.”

With a massive open space now forming the core between the ecosystems, KANVA parametrically designed a living skin that they could wrap around the ecosystems, and which would serve as a guiding accompaniment to visitors.

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

The firm describes the installation of the prefabricated pure white, biophilic skin as a “monumental task.” With no room for error, the skin was curved and stretched around a bowed aluminum structure, using tension, cantilevering, and triangular beams for suspension, and itself anchored to a primary steel structure. Mechanical junctions were also incorporated in order to accommodate a variety of movements and allow for on-site adjustments.

The firm designed new passages aimed at transforming the existing linear path of discovery into a more dynamic experience, where visitors take charge of their own journeys through the Biodome’s five ecosystems, housing more than 250,000 animals and 500 plant species.

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

Conceptually aiming for a more immersive experience, KANVA focused its attention on soliciting senses, relegating sight to the end of the line behind sound, smell, and touch.

From the calming lobby hall, the undulating living skin funnels visitors into a 10-meter tunnel leading to the central core, where their exploration of five ecosystems, including Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Labrador Coast, begins. 

The entry tunnel features a very subtle floor incline, intended to slow the pace of movement through a compressed white passage, and to void the mind for fresh sensory input.

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

Once visitors reach the central core, smaller slits in the living skin, called eco-transits, lead them towards the ecosystem entrances. As automatic doors at the end of the eco-transit open into the ecosystem, it remains visually obstructed by a curtain of beads.

At the entrance of the Subpolar Regions, KANVA designed a new ice tunnel that acclimatizes visitors during the transition, while the sounds and smells of puffins and penguins ahead provide additional sensory stimulation.

Vertically, KANVA added an entire new level above the ecosystems, accessible via walkways enabling visitors to move through the foliage of majestic trees of both the Tropical Rainforest and Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystems. The walkways lead to a new mezzanine, offering aerial views of the various ecosystems and the pure white nucleus. The new mezzanine also serves as a technical floor, with interactive educational exhibits and insight into the elaborate machinery required to preserve the facility’s delicate ecosystems.

Photo credit: James Brittain

Before designing a new water basin for the facility’s resident penguins, KANVA staff spent weeks with biologists and veterinarians in order to gain insight into the specie’s swimming patterns.

To provide an authentic feel to an observation point where visitors can observe beavers in their natural habitat, the firm studied the architectural prowess of the beavers. The idea emerged to let the beavers carve the wood themselves, which was then dried and used to line the interior of the space. 

“Before you can even begin to design in an environment with living species all around you, education and a notion of humbleness are required,” said Bebawi. “We take basic assumptions about ourselves for granted when we design for other human beings, but designing for an otter or a sloth requires that you re-educate yourself.”

“We need to reconnect people with the environment, and the Biodome does that in a refreshing way that we are proud to have contributed to,” said Bebawi. “This project has provided us with six years of invaluable knowledge, preparing us for new and innovative approaches to future projects where architecture becomes a tool to promote and facilitate environmental change.”


  • KANVA: Design Architect, Quebec Architect, Coordinating Architect, Project Manager. In collaboration with NEUF architect(e)s
  • Bouthillette Parizeau inc.: Electromechanical engineer
  • NCK inc.: Structural Engineer


  • Groupe GLT+: Building code specialist and cost consultant
  • Atelier 6: Specification writer
  • LightFactor: Lighting design consultant
  • La bande à Paul: Collaborating exhibition designer
  • Anick La Bissonnière: Collaborating set designer
  • Nathalie Matte: Collaborating museologist
  • Bélanger Design: Wayfinding specialist
  • Topo 3D: Land surveyor
  • Soft dB: Acoustics specialist