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Too much architecture, not enough landscape?

by Bernard-Félix Chénier, published 2016-03-29
A design competition for the Eastern Beach, (Montréal, 2013)

The design competition of the Eastern Beach highlights a complexity that lies in the affirmation of an integrated architectural landscape gesture, whose intention is to mend ties between the river and the community of Montreal. In the context of this competition, this issue has resurfaced out of the need for an integrative approach between the work of both landscape architects and architects. The collaborative efforts between the two disciplines stood out and the observed complementarity of their approaches was the decisive element in the selection of the winners.

Montrealers are well aware that they live on an island. However, the island lifestyle, when not completely absent, is little developed. It is important to note that this stigmatization is primarily due to the urban infrastructure. The design competition proposed the redevelopment of a site located in the east of the island of Montreal along the St. Lawrence River in the borough of Pointe-aux-Trembles. Proposals needed to promote access to the river while engaging with the concept of "the fantastic beach". This type of intervention combines architecture and landscape, recalling the movement of large North American parks of the 19th century while correlating with a more contemporary current rehabilitation of urban brownfields. The New York Highline, the Samuel de Champlain promenade in Quebec City, the Point Pleasant Park in Nova Scotia, the Sugar Beach in Ontario, the Smith Walk in Griffintown and the beach of the clock in Montreal are all contemporary examples that testify to this trend oriented towards the sublimation of urban landscapes. All considered, it is impressive that more than 36 proposals were submitted of which five were selected as finalists.

One of the objectives of the competition was the complementarity between the architectural and landscape interventions. Submitted projects clearly illustrated the complexity associated with built forms integrated into the landscape. Thereafter, these architectural interventions can be divided into two categories; “dropped” architecture as opposed to an “emerging architecture”.

While the competition is organised by the Design Bureau of Montreal UNESCO, the CCC does not have access to all the submitted proposals, thus, the five finalists were analyzed in order to identify significant elements. These projects demonstrated the potential of appropriated public space by way of contemplative recreational activities on top of thoroughly illustrating clear concepts.

The project “Les plages de l’Est” about Microclimate architecture and Landscape Versions, offers an architectural intervention so that the infrastructure is concentrated in a circumscribed area. This organization allows the expansion of the rest of the "natural" program, increasing the possibilities for contact with the river landscape and water activities. The tower, while acting as a flagship, is imposing and massive; observed by the jury as a contradiction when integrated in the surrounding environment. The projection of a potential development-area for public and private infrastructure is attractive to recover the investment and revitalize the area around the site. Nevertheless, this proposal remains unclear and may give way to excess, compromising the balance between landscape and architectural intervention.

The work attributed to Atelier Barda and NIP Paysage is an intervention meticulously integrated in the context with rich and diverse plants. This landscape based concept is both flexible and well structured, leading us to predict an orderly development. However, the tower is treated with little care leading to a significant impact when integrated in context. So to speak “dropped architecture,” it seems that the landscape has priority over the trademark architecture.

The architectural proposal by Rousseau Lefebvre JPB Group and Architects offers a balance contradicting their precedent, evoking weariness of both the “S” shaped dock and the experimental parametric forms seemingly lacking control. Despite being an example for which architecture induces discomfort, this proposal remains a sensitive suggestion to treat the natural typology by way of landscaped unites such as the asparagus farm, the orchard, as well as the dunes and deciduous trees along the St. Lawrence River.

An analogue approach is perceptible in the proposal by Vlan Paysage and The Commons. They have applied the notion of creating “sites” for which the complimentary characteristics allow for the generation of a strong idea. The fisherman’s dock, the forest clearing, the terrace, the “Quai-des-Brume,” the frog marsh, and the dune; these qualify and enrich their intervention. Rather than relying on a conventional architectural intervention, the proposal emphasised the potential of recreating the profile of the site. By this, Vlan Paysage and The Commons proposed an architectural intervention that emerges from the landscape by capitalising on the existing topography and natural parameters. Despite conceptual strengths, the intended devices of this proposal do not assure the continuity between the concept and the proposition. As for the perspectives, they reveal a vast unlimited space even though the existing site is relatively delimited.

Ruccolo Faubert and Ni + landscape architecture design proposed a structured vision that integrates the landscape. Several architectural and landscape features have been put in place to promote access to the riverbank and to increase public space appropriation. The jury appreciated the surveying work that was in a spirit consistent with the natural environment. In addition, the synergy between the site and the potential activities, the contact with the river, the adaptability in time and the creation of its own identity in the neighborhood are together strong elements that have played for this winning proposal. Note that the ideas are expressed simply and clearly, all relatively didactic without overloading the proposal. The building induces a symbiosis between architecture and landscape by a unified topographical gesture. The building emerges from the site by means of a structured jetty creating both a path for walking and a roof structure. Paradoxically, the gesture of integrating the building to the landscape is not without problems, it highlights certain issues including the daunting space created underneath the structure.

This competition has highlighted the complexity associated with the integration of architecture and landscape in a river setting. In this regard, the design competition of the eastern beach demonstrates the inherent complementarity to the disciplines of architecture and landscape. The competition organizers have probably minimized the impact of a broader view of the problem of the access to the river, preferring to throw their sights on a small patch of the East of the island. This begs the question; why not orient this competition towards a broader horizon, to enable potential access to the banks of the St. Lawrence River at a metropolitan scale?

(English version revised by Chantal Auger)
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