It feels like Montreal. Just south of the city’s famed Jean-Talon Market, Henri Julien Avenue unfolds in a pleasantly eclectic streetscape of rowhouses, walk-up apartments – complete with Montreal’s trademark outdoor staircases – and larger mid-century buildings. It’s a context that makes the new Maison Atelier easy to miss, and this speaks to the sensitivity of yh2 architectes‘ long-standing presence in the neighbourhood.
A mid-block addition, Maison Atelier replaces a low-slung garage – which formerly housed part of yh2’s own studio – with a three-storey presence. Located alongside yh2’s older project Maison Tour, the new edifice builds on the design language established by its predecessor, combining a muted yellow brick frontage with weathering steel accents.
Like its neighbour, Maison Atelier is organized as a live-work space. On a corner lot that fronts the slightly busier Rue Bélanger, the older Maison Tour integrates a studio and a residential dwelling into the same space. Next door, the new mixed-use configuration is more clearly delineated; a ground-floor office is topped by a two-storey residence.
Together, the two buildings make an understated but elegant pair. While Maison Tour’s narrow windows emphasize verticality, a more townhouse-inspired frontage characterizes Maison Atelier. In between, a small courtyard has been retained, offering a moment of quiet respite in an urban context. Its rooftop space opens out to panoramic views of the city.
From the street, both buildings meet their surroundings with an urban presence, with frontages that approach the lot line and doors that immediately meet the sidewalk. yh2’s approach offers a variation of the classic Montreal “plex” typology, where two to four residences are stacked on top of each other. In this case, however, modest density is achieved by building deeper into the lot rather than higher. Moreover, the deft combination of studio space and residences contributes to Montreal’s mixed-use character.
Even in Montreal, adding infill comes with municipal restrictions. A by-law dictates that two detached buildings on a single lot are prohibited, which posed a challenge to the designers. Fortunately, the issue was resolved by the insertion of a second-storey link between the two buildings. It’s impressive architectural problem-solving. Made of patinated steel and glass, the aerial bridge gives each house an extra room above the garden, without reducing the size of the courtyard.
Yet, it’s not quite as dense as it looks. If there’s a drawback to the project’s urban impact, it’s the relative paucity of dwellings. Despite a spatially efficient, boxy typology that evokes walk-up apartments rather than single-family homes, the two buildings are arguably closer to the latter.
It’s a contrast to what happens in many younger North American cities, where apartment buildings often read as houses. This is because house form typologies have historically been retrofitted – sometimes illegally – into multiple dwellings. But in Montreal, even a house can look like an apartment building.
It’s a subtle distinction, though one that hints at larger ideological disparities about how a city should look – and what it means to live there. Here, the idea of urbanity is something to embrace. It’s a lesson many North American cities would do well to learn.
With Maison Atelier, Montreal’s yh2 architectes offer mixed-use urban infill on a sensitive scale.