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With the 1781 Saint-Jean-Baptiste church at its heart – and its spire the highest peak – the Quebec village of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli unfolds in a modest array of small shops and detached homes. But this small town of 3,400 on the Saint Lawrence River also boasts a well-established arts scene – and it is for this community that a discreet new artists residence on the outskirts of town now serves as the permanent nexus.

Est-Nord-Est, as the centre is called, features a pitched roof that evokes the side of a barn. Designed by Québec City’s Bourgeois / Lechasseur architectes, the complex replaces a temporary arts hub that stood on the same site. A simple skeleton of locally harvested white-painted cedar is paired with a sheet metal roof to create a humble and contextually integrated presence. Inside, a similar aesthetic simplicity becomes a canvas for creation.

A view of the Center Est-Nord-Est entrance

From a small door that faces the road, visitors enter an airy double-height space at the heart of the complex. By turns a lounge, an exhibition gallery, a community kitchen, and a meeting point, the space opens out to a small courtyard, and – up the showpiece spiral staircase – a sun-filled second-storey library, where a collection of live-work studios and workshops are clustered along a corridor at the back of the building.

the central lounge

Est-Nord-Est’s artists-in-residence program hosts five live-work spaces, as well as three shared workshops, which are dedicated to wood, metal and assembly. The artists who come through the space vary widely in discipline – ranging from dancers and performers to sculptors and craftspeople – so the suites are designed to be adapted to resident needs.

All five artist studios have an identical two-storey layout, with a bed on the mezzanine and a relatively open space below that can be easily reconfigured.

a view of the artist residence

Maintaining the pared-down design language of the building’s exterior, a material palette of plywood, gypsum and polished concrete define the interiors. Throughout the complex, ample natural light lends a feeling of warmth to the unadorned rooms, where white walls are softened by simple plywood accents. Constructed with a budget of only $2.3 million, the 951-square-metre building is elevated by a thoughtful design that harnesses its simple elements – from natural light to plywood – to create a quietly powerful sense of place.

Looking down the barrel of the staircase at Center Est-Nord-Est

Far from Canada’s metropolitan centres, Est-Nord-Est creates a vital – and architecturally noteworthy – new hub for the arts. For a local arts community that began through a series of casual encounters and residences in the 1990s, the building functions as a regional anchor. And for Bourgeois / Lechasseur founders Olivier Bourgeois and Régis Lechasseur – both of whom grew up in relatively rural parts of Quebec – the project expresses a deft understanding of both the local landscape and its architecture. It’s a modest building, yet one designed with surprising panache. But how did it come to be?

a view of the courtyard at Center Est-Nord-Est

In 2017, Bourgeois / Lechasseur’s contextually attuned design was chosen was the winner of an architectural competition. It’s a striking contrast to English Canada, where architectural competitions are almost entirely resigned to the past – even when it comes to major cultural hubs. Not here at least. Est-Nord-Est is a humble project – and a humble testament to a radically better way of doing things.

The Est-Nord-Est Artists Residence Was Inspired by Quebec’s Rural Landscape

The village of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is home to a vital new artistic hub – and a surprising architectural showpiece by Bourgeois / Lechasseur architectes.

AZURE is an independent magazine working to bring you the best in design, architecture and interiors. We rely on advertising revenue to support the creative content on our site. Please consider whitelisting our site in your settings, or pausing your adblocker while stopping by.