Asked to transform an old presbytery into a multipurpose art centre in the heart of Montreal, La SHED was faced with two challenges: how to connect a series of cloistered, compartmentalized spaces, and how to revitalize a building while paying homage to its history.
The building in question – located next to a 111-year-old cathedral on St-Denis Street, now a spa – has a diverse and layered past. Consisting of the original rectory from 1933, an extension completed in the 1950s, and a wing of rooms for monks from the 1960s, the space lacked cohesion.
Project lead Samuel Guimond explains that “one of the main challenges has been to unify the different sections of the building into a coherent whole that meets the multiple and complex functions of the contemporary art centre – exhibition gallery, studios for artists, art school, event hall.”
By connecting the rooms via large rectangular doorways, La SHED was able to open up the space navigationally. Transecting the rooms in a straight line, the openings form an invisible corridor through the main floor. The new “openings and tunnellings create new points of view and perspectives in the building,” Guimond tells Azure.
Lined with mirror-finish stainless steel, the doorways reflect the rooms they connect in an intriguing play of light. As Guimond notes, “the mirrored surfaces create puzzles that trick the eye, dematerializing the edges of the openings … the mirrors energize the experience of the place.” Passing through these portals, one feels that La SHED isn’t overwriting the building’s past so much as intersecting it.
An equally striking dialogue is the one taking place in colour, or the lack thereof. By coating the majority of the interior’s surfaces in snow white — a move that Guimond calls “the neutralization of the space” — the presbytery’s past isn’t erased but etherealized, made ghostly.
Though mostly subdued behind white walls, floors and ceilings, the building’s neo-Gothic history occasionally bursts forth in an old brown staircase or a wood-pannelled bay window. “These elements are preserved in their original state,” Guimond says, “and act as artifacts reminding us of the historical importance of the place. They represent an artisanal skill set that doesn’t exist today.”
This play of old and new adds historical depth to an otherwise contemporary experience, well-suited to the activities of Le Livart. “The detachment of these different objects from their white environment allows us to read them as works of art in their own right — to note them, observe them, and keep their testimonies of the past in our memories.”