Every building has a story, but only a few designers attempt to tell it. When Montreal firm Kanva set out to design a student residence, on a vacant downtown lot facing the McGill University campus, the architects wanted it to function as an inviting dormitory while speaking to the city’s history. Founded in 2003 by Tudor Radulescu and Rami Bebawi, the relatively young studio won a 2013 innovation award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
For the Edison Residence, they encased a student-friendly interior that features sunflower yellow accents – from furniture to doors to hallways – with exterior walls constructed of photo-engraved concrete panels. From a distance, the facade appears to be fashioned from oversized masonry blocks; you could mistake it for the weathered limestone that graces Montreal’s historical churches and elegant residences. Up close, however, ghostly images suddenly cohere. It’s a creative way of building in a designated heritage zone, pushing contemporary technology to evoke the presence of the past.
The residence takes its name from American inventor Thomas Edison, who filmed Montreal firefighters in horse-drawn sleighs responding to a call in the winter of 1901. According to Bebawi, the lot had been empty for years, but excavation uncovered some charred foundations, and the architects began to imagine that the firefighters could have been nearby. They hope the engraved images will spur passersby to make an imaginative leap into the past.
The technical challenges proved daunting. The film stills were transformed into three-dimensional grey-scale files, which milling machines then reproduced on wooden sheets in a relief of 256 shades; elastic moulds were then produced to form the factory-poured concrete panels, which also contain insulation and the interior finish. The 20 stills move continuously across the facade and windows, from top to bottom, repeating three times. “We wanted to keep Edison’s sequence intact,” Bebawi explains.
The entrance is set inside a porte cochère lined with the film’s final sequence, and the ceiling introduces the same bright yellow hue that accents the interior. Inside, the modest 840-square-metre space has a youth hostel vibe, with public rooms facing the busy street on each of the three upper floors. “When we visited other student residences, we saw that the lobby was an important social area,” Bebawi notes. Kanva responded with a playful “cocoon” in Russian plywood that seats a dozen people in the main-floor lobby, next to a large window that overlooks the street.
A brightly lit communal kitchen occupies the second floor, with a television lounge on the top level. These common areas feature sturdy finishes meant to stand up to hard use, including polished concrete floors, concrete walls (also good for acoustic privacy) and steel baseboards. Thirty rooms, arranged along the central corridor of each floor, feature full-height cabinetry, expansive windows and yet more splashes of yellow. Still, these are college dorms, so your opinion of them might vary according to whether you remember your undergraduate days with fondness or embarrassment.
It would be interesting to know if the storytelling works. There is always a risk that the students are more interested in the surface effects than the deeper message about the city. History has gone out of fashion in contemporary architecture, usurped by social activism, parametric design and global practices; meanwhile, architects remain wary of the ironic columns and pastiche porticos of Reagan-era postmodernism. Thus, it’s a surprise to see history so boldly invoked in a youth-oriented setting. If it works, it’s because Radulescu and Bebawi committed to making the building speak. “Our projects are all about telling a story,” affirms Bebawi. “We profoundly believe in that.”