What is it like to be an insect? It’s a question tackled by two seminal works. The first is Franz Kafka’s 1915 novel The Metamorphosis, which chronicles the sudden transformation of salesman Gregor Samsa into a “monstrous vermin,” who is neglected by his family and left to starve. The second is much more optimistic: the reimagined Montreal Insectarium opens an immersive window — or burrow — into the dynamic, sensitive and complex world of small invertebrates.
Established as a natural history museum in 1990, the Montreal Insectarium is the largest museum of its kind in North America, displaying a wealth of preserved insect species from around the world. In 2014, an architecture competition was initiated to reimagine the site as a more immersive fusion of architecture and nature. Led by Berlin architects Kuehn Malvezzi in collaboration with local firms Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes, the winning design brings humans more intimate, living contact with the worlds of butterflies, bees and ants.
Forming part of Montreal’s expansive Espace pour la vie museum district, the 3,600-square-metre complex comprises three distinct settings — an outdoor garden and two exhibition volumes, with office spaces and laboratories integrated throughout — which together convey visitors on a journey through a wide range of habitats and settings. It starts outdoors, where a sloping pollinator garden (designed by Berlin-based landscape architects atelier le balto) leads to the museum entrance.
Past a bright, sunlit entry pavilion, the space transforms into a tight, winding underground corridor, evoking a burrow. The textured surface was created with “shotcrete,” a construction technique that involves spraying liquid concrete atop a rebar base — a method prominently and controversially utilized in another recent natural history museum, Studio Gang’s new Gilder Center in New York.
The narrow passageways and earthy brown walls mimic an ant hill, and lead to a group of six cave-like exhibition rooms, which invite visitors to experience life on a smaller scale, including a crevice where humans move like grasshoppers through the blades of a meadow, a room that simulates the pixelated vision of a fly, and a space that recreates a bee’s ultraviolet vision.
While each room’s program is varied, the whole of it is similarly finished in shotcrete. Here, the material blend was carefully chosen to wear gracefully and develop a smoother patina over time. (A year after the April 2022 opening, it’s held up reasonably well, with patches of the rough surface elegantly evened out.)
The journey culminates in a tall domed room — resembling an ant hill from the exterior — where a wealth of preserved insects is displayed in a more traditional, yet nonetheless whimsical, museum setting.
Past the dome, the journey continues between shotcrete walls, culminating in a remarkable greenhouse vivarium. Butterflies and leaf-cutter ants mingle amidst the lush, misted greenery, topped by a saw-toothed glass roof. It is a comforting, sensuous and even thrilling conclusion to the journey. This time, the metamorphosis has a happy ending.
Kuehn Malvezzi, Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte conjure a Kafkaesque metamorphosis with a happy ending.