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Virtuous simplicity

A tight budget has brought out the best in OMA whose uncomplicated Québec gallery is drawing the crowds

Nestled comfortably on the edge of historic Battlefields Park (Parc des Champs-de-Bataille) in Québec City, the terraced, triple-glazed box of the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion connects three existing pavilions at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec (MNBAQ). The pavilion adds seven new galleries and a 256-seat auditorium that will allow the museum to show off its exceptional collection of Québec art and design produced from 1960 to the present.

The project stems from a 2010 international competition, the first ever held in. The museum was Anxious to have a ‘world-class’ building signed by a celebrity architect, the museum held Québec City’s first ever international competition in 2010 and awarded the project to Rem Koolhaas. The project was actually developed, however, by Shohei Shigematsu, director of OMA’s New York office, in collaboration with the Montreal-based firm Provencher Roy. Although a simple glass box may not be the skyline-changing icon that the museum hoped for, simplicity turns out to be a virtue. Shigematsu has found a way to use familiar OMA resources – the dramatic cantilever, the exposed steel truss, the glazed box – to make a humble cultural attraction, focused on how visitors, artists, and curators will appropriate it.

The addition follows a diagram based on three cascading boxes. The idea is that the park climbs up the back of the building over planted roof terraces, while the city slips in under a 12.5 m high, 20 m-long, 26.5 m-wide cantilever facing the Grand Allée, a major street that continues into the Unesco World Heritage site of Old Québec. Shigematsu calls the lobby underneath the cantilever an urban plaza. It leads to a restaurant (not designed by OMA, he is quick to point out), a curved, pine-lined bookstore-gift shop, and a partly sheltered courtyard. A Dominican convent was demolished to make way for the Pavilion, but Saint-Dominique church and presbytery remain and now form two sides of the courtyard.

On the outside, OMA downplays the staggered boxes as sculptural form-making. Glazing around the entrance foyer, for instance, mutes the drama of the cantilever. The glass opaquely reflects the surrounding trees, so that for much of the day the cantilever appears to only be 4-5m long. Nor are the volumes detailed as independent boxes (the top of the middle box and the bottom of the top box coincide), so any potential illusion of precarious sliding is stabilised. Yet the clarity of the diagram remains, especially at night when the trusses are silhouetted against the translucent glass. 

Inside, the interior revolves around an atrium filled with a spiraling staircase. Most visitors will enter the museum from the car park, which is adjacent to the three existing pavilions. They will arrive via a 140-m long tunnel, so for them the grand entrance is a staircase that swirls up to the main lobby and on to the second level. Or they could take the elevator, housed in a mammoth golden tower. Between levels two and three, the stair changes from concrete to glass and steel, and pops outside the box, giving visitors relief from the galleries and a view of the park. The intersection of stairs and exposed structure here makes for a small sculptural moment, a mini Frank Gehry of canted, white-painted steel.

With this 14,900m2 addition, the museum has doubled its exhibition areas. The basement level houses the auditorium, workshops and storage areas. There are two temporary galleries on the ground floor and a permanent installation of contemporary art on the middle level. At the top is Inuit art and a gallery dedicated to decorative arts and design. Most of the work in the galleries has been languishing in storage facilities. The centerpiece, on display in its entirety for the first time, is Jean-Paul Riopelle’s 40-m long 1976 triptych, 'Tribute to Rosa Luxembourg'. OMA installed it in the tunnel – a clever, practical move that shows the designer’s willingness to modify the architecture to fit the art.

One reason for the design’s lack of flamboyancy is money. Starchitecture has had little impact in Québec because of the province’s notoriously low budgets for public buildings. Matthieu Geoffrion, project leader at Provencher Roy, explained that the budget here was about one-sixth of the budget for Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A value-engineering exercise – urgently necessary after the first bids came back over budget—meant that the only one small part of one roof is accessible. So it’s cost that explains why the resulting outdoor experience is less enthralling than that which Renzo Piano is able to offer at the Whitney Museum in New York. Still, on the inside, OMA has made room everywhere for flexible areas suitable for education, respite, and parties.

And parties there will be. In its first brief week, the Pavilion has been a runaway success with the public. In itself, the design is not distinctive enough to attract tourists—but they will come to visit Old Québec, and they will add the MNBAQ to their itinerary. The combination of a fly-in architect and local politics hasn’t always worked out well in Canada. The architect got this one right.

David Theodore is assistant professor at the McGill University School of Architecture