PROJECT OF THE YEAR: Centre Culturel Desjardins, Joliette, Québec

Atelier TAG Inc., Montréal

Photography by Adrien Williams

If someone ever mounts a Broadway or West End play representing our current era, it should be called The Crucible of Necessity. Urgent climate change challenges coupled with the wallet-bruising effects of the pandemic have forced us all to recalibrate. With that in mind, the renewed Centre Culturel Desjardins — with its restored 1927 performance hall, where emphasis was placed on preserving existing structures and strategic repurposing of materials — would be the natural home of that stage production.

The auditorium, originally housed within the Académie Saint-Viateur and born in the Beaux-Arts style by Montréal architects Venne and Viau, boasts intricate neoclassical embellishments that extend beyond mere aesthetics, serving the space’s acoustic ecology. Here, full-height curved panels have been introduced, meticulously calibrated through acoustic simulations. These panels possess a bifocal acoustic quality, absorbing and reflecting sound. This architectural concept exemplifies an economy of means, balancing the aesthetic and the utilitarian, allowing resources to flow into other innovative aspects of the project.

Once monochromatic, the 1927 auditorium now reclaims its chromatic memory. Inspired by archival photographs, a semitone chromatic palette oscillates between the original cream and the striking red of the first-generation seats: a universal symbol of theater. This dichotomy elevates the balcony above the parterre, casting the ceiling’s craftsmanship in an immersive red glow. The gradient transition from black to grey within the parterre and proscenium arch serves both aesthetics and functionality, honouring the space’s Beaux-Arts heritage through a contemporary lens. Beyond the theatre itself, the foyer has been reimagined as a cohesive architectural statement that creates dynamic sub-spaces facilitating social interactions.

The Centre Culturel Desjardins project, which was designed in response to the urgency of climate change and the global pandemic, demonstrates a forward-thinking approach that carefully studies and considers sustainability, conservation, and adaptation to new circumstances. The project’s acoustic performance integration, chromatic immanence, and foyer transformation are all noteworthy achievements. The auditorium’s chromatic identity, reintroduced from archival photographs, showcases a blend of heritage preservation and contemporary reinterpretation. The foyer transformation, added in 1995, encourages social interaction while conserving resources. The project also demonstrates a commitment to sustainable development principles, incorporating existing materials like wood, grey stone, and concrete.

The project articulates a completely transformational perception and experience of heritage architecture using bold and fearless colour, lighting engineering and contemporary architectural language. This project serves as a shining example of how interior design can adapt to the challenges of our times while creating a new and progressing dialogue between its progressive interior design and the past. As a beacon of excellence and innovation in the field of interior design, the Centre Cultural Desjardins project sets a high standard for future endeavours in Canada and beyond as we take advantage of the embodied cumulative history and energy.Paul Sapounzi, president and managing principal, +VG Architects

“This project manages to take a program that is very specific in its requirements and elevate it. The seemingly simple moves belie the obvious thought and care behind the scenes. The colour blocking in the different areas is striking and impactful, with the more muted black and white opening into the stunning red. Extending the traditional red colour of theatre seats to the entire mezzanine unifies the space and makes it into a floating element. Not only does it make a strong statement, but it also makes you look at the heritage details in a new light, re-interpreting the theatrical experience.”Joanne Lam, principal and co-founder, Picnic Design

“The Centre Culturel Desjardins is a visually striking project that is the result of a thoughtful, principled, approach to the restoration of a theatre.”Fraser Greenberg, owner, Milky’s Coffee / marketing director, Relative Space

“The restoration of the performance hall at the Centre Culturel Desjardins is a perfect marriage of old and new; a contemporary take on the Centre’s historical heritage, and the intentions of the original designers. It is also a thoughtful project where budget was spent wisely, respecting the need to conserve and restore, and only spend money where it really counts.”Viz Saraby, professor and Coordinator of Interior Design, George Brown College