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On the foothills of Mount Royal, a modest emergency backup facility at Montreal’s McGill University brings power generation into the public eye. At the heart of the school’s downtown campus, the complex integrates backup infrastructure into a green and elegantly permeable new environment that complements the university’s architectural heritage.

Designed by local architects FABG, the new building houses a trio of  1.5-megawatt generators intended to protect the university’s sensitive research functions in the event of a power outage. Replacing an outdated natural gas generator that was tucked between a pair of campus buildings — and installed adjacent to a boiler room, posing a safety hazard — the diesel-powered facility will will also provide electricity during emergencies and peak periods for up to a dozen campus buildings.

The new complex is more than a much-needed technical upgrade. On a steep site overlooking the school’s picturesque lower campus, the building is an understated architectural showpiece. Replacing a former parking lot, a sleek glass box is subtly cantilevered over the hillside, inviting passerby from the stairs below to gaze into the warmly lit interior.

A prominent yet deferential presence, the pavilion is designed to blend in with its historic context. While the low-slung aluminum green roof preserves sight-lines to the campus below, the building’s careful positioning on the site picks up on the angles and datum lines of its older neighbours. Sitting lightly on the landscape, the building also leverages its challenging topography into a virtue, with bulky internal ventilation and mechanical systems tucked into the hillside alongside a new pedestrian path.

Approached from the higher ground above, the glass pavilion is surrounded — and topped — by greenery. The landscaped plateau that meets the sidewalk creates an inviting frontage and the building’s sleek glass facade transforms the diesel-powered machinery within into an unexpected showpiece. While generators are typically placed out of sight, FABG’s transparent curtainwall celebrates the infrastructure on display.

It doesn’t look bad, either. Framed by the light and streamlined structure, the machinery sits on a simple limestone podium that reflects the materials of McGill’s historic neighbouring buildings. Under the lights and behind the glass, all the vents, pipes and boxes typically considered an eyesore become a source of fascination. Set alongside the new stairway created as part of the project, the pavilion serves an indirect pedagogical function by placing the back of house at centre stage.

It is a paradigm shift that feels unfortunately timely as the usually dry, technical questions of how power is supplied and regulated take on a sudden urgency in the midst of the prolonged Texas power crisis. From maps of North American electricity grids to explorations of ageing power lines and climate-induced vulnerabilities, the deadly — and ongoing — crisis has thrust infrastructure into the spotlight.

In Montreal, FABG Imbues Power Generation with Urban Grace

A diesel-powered backup station does double duty as an infrastructural showpiece at McGill University.

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