The public face of the redesigned Montreal Biodome, completed this year by local architects KANVA, appears spectacularly simple. Take the redesigned entry hall: sweeping along a splay of rough concrete colossi — diagonal vestiges of the building’s original bleachers — are a pair of curving, austere white walls. Though dwarfed by the newly-exposed vast roof, the sinuous walls are several storeys tall, trailing in from either corner of the lobby before curling out of sight. This elegant and gentle conversation with the city’s former Olympic Velodrome could be mistaken as sculptural play for its own sake.
But nothing is that simple in the Biodome. Housed within the imposing skeleton of Roger Tallibert’s 1976 Olympic Velodrome, the complex is home to multiple replica ecosystems, complete with cohabiting native flora and fauna. Opened in 1992, the Biodome is a remarkably complex building, made possibly via feats of engineering, artifice, and ecological expertise.
KANVA’s mandate following their successful bid at the international redesign competition in 2014 appropriately follows suit. Beyond the reinterpretation of the museum’s public spaces, they were responsible for developing immersive visitor experiences and completing necessary renovations and maintenance within the ecosystems, without disturbing the delicate “living building.”
Hence those massive white walls, which, in a fitting example of the lightweight and low-disruption approaches required, are actually taut membranes mounted on prefabricated frames designed for easy maneuverability, installation and adjustment.
It’s a delightful departure from the competition-winning design, in which those curving walls were canvases for lavish projections — blue whales or alpine forests hovering above visitors. “The idea of the projections was that you could start animating the place,” says Rami Bebawi, KANVA co-founder and lead architect on the project. “But once we won and started becoming a part of the family, you realize this is not about entertainment.”
Instead, the skin catches daylight, generating an even, ethereal atmosphere; a palette cleanser before the ecosystems themselves. Another such intervention occurs beyond the entry hall, as the skin pulls in like a canyon. “The floor is sloped — you can barely see it, at one or two percent, but you slow down,” says Bebawi. “Then you reach the centre, the void. You are relatively calm. And then we want you to go and meet the species.” Further interventions, like choreographed moments of sensory exposure or a tunnel built of real ice, serve to highlight non-visual senses within the ecosystems.
In a building as complex as this, of course, any adjustment readily snowballs with repercussions. “The Biodome is a man-made ecosystem,” explains Bebawi. “If you add a ramp to improve access and views, you are adding shade below. Do I add lights below to compensate? Do I include a wall of plants to contribute humidity?”
As a result, no design decisions were made without all stakeholders and in-house teams at the table. The new basin for penguins, for instance, required weeks of direct collaboration with veterinarians and biologists. “We had to study the swimming patterns of four different species,” notes Bebawi, “and how they get out of the water. Some leap right out, and some slide up on their stomach.”
To visitors, however, the artifice and engineering involved can go understandably unnoticed. After all, the Biodome is an exercise in immersion and feeling. Central to KANVA’s global vision for the site was a philosophy they identify as “heart, head, hand.” The heart — the affectionate and sensual ecosystems generating emotional attachment and connection — and the hand — introspective spaces toward the exit bearing environmental calls to action — are devices of architectural rhetoric that suit the museum’s goals.
But the head pulls back the curtain. The new mezzanine at the centre of the building provides a unique vantage on the ecosystems or, where the membrane emerges from below and forms the perfect angle for leaning back, on the roof and sky. In Bebawi’s words, “the belvedere allows you to see it from above, all at once, and all the machines are seen, they’re not hidden.” Meanwhile, children can explore the Bio-machine, a new exhibit documenting the expertise and techniques used on “the other side of the décor” to sustain the ecosystems.
And when those translucent serpentine walls catch the light just right, they reveal grand silhouettes of structures and machinery beyond. Here, the secrets of the Biodome are poetically splayed across its curling public facades. In a museum bearing the simultaneous goals of authentic immersion and scientific education, such moments of revelation are refreshing and honest.
What do you learn from a project as big as this? “It might sound tacky, corny, or basic,” says Bebawi, “but I think the takeaway is being sensitive. There are traditional and systemic approaches to promote but being able to be sensitive to notions of balance is important.”
In a rural residence north of Montreal, KANVA is now developing a double-layered wood façade, designed to be occupied by birds and plants.
Kanva Architecture infuses the iconic Montreal landmark with symbiotic design.