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Stairway to the Horizon

by Jean-Pierre Chupin, Maxime Leblanc, Raphaëlle Leclerc, published 2018-06-13
By treating a vacant space of 40 metres between two domes, this competition program, as rare as it is in architecture, invariably evokes this other contest, almost mythical now, for the construction of the Dome of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Awarded to the brilliant Filippo Brunelleschi in the mid-fifteenth century, it inaugurated, no more nor less, the consecration of the architect’s role to that of the medieval master builder. More modest, both in terms of budget and function that is both spiritual and lucrative, the competition launched at the end of 2017, by Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal, chose the project by Atelier TAG / Architecture 49, which, it seems, has retained the lesson of the Florentine master: it is not enough to solve the constructive question, rather one must strive to communicate it with wonder, conviction and pedagogy.

The miracles of Saint Brother André still lead many pilgrims to climb the steps of Saint Joseph's Oratory, on the northwestern side of Mount Royal in Montreal, in an act of penance that intoxicates believers and frightens specialists in osteoarthritis and knee surgery. By offering to multiply the different experiences at the museum level, the oratory management will soon add an unexpected event, as physically demanding as it is architecturally sublime. It will consist of a circumvolution along a ramp in the shape of a rolled-up sail on the interior dome, culminating towards access to the lantern, hitherto forbidden, which will offer a complete panorama on the horizon of Montreal.

Four teams were called to reflect on this unprecedented question, four groups of architects and engineers in fact, given a task which was both technically and spatially challenging:
- Atelier TAG / Architecture 49 / Stantec / SDK
- Architecture EVOQ / BPA / NCK
- Provencher Roy / Pageau Morel / SNC Lavallin
- Affleck of the Riva / Henri Cleinge / Martin Roy / Lateral / DWB

Let us note from the outset that the spiritual aspect, in a contradictory way, was bypassed or misunderstood by the competing teams. In any case, this is evident from the jury report chaired by UQAM Professor Carlo Carbone: a report whose drafting, precision and transparency are, for all intents and purposes, exemplary. While the functional, museum and engineering integration components were each allocated 25% of the score, the spiritual component was limited to 15%, and not more than the 10% attributed to "potential for animating and interpreting the design concept of the inter-dome". How to explain this shift in the understanding of an architectural mandate whose objective is summarized, in an eminently transcendental way, to an inner ascent? It must undoubtedly be the mark of both the metaphysical and financial natures of the project, as it is difficult to imagine that this inter-dome experience will be as free as the ascension of the front steps on one’s knees. "The jury notes that the four proposals have not developed the desired spiritual criterion", a jury which, furthermore, regrets that the treatment of the "draper" in the winning project "does not translate as clearly on a spiritual level", while paradoxically reproaching the project of Provencher Roy, a concept which "rests on a control of the light which lies outside the mandate’s scope". It would have been thought, however, that the quality of light could spiritually accompany the pilgrim in an ascent.
In which case, what was the purpose of the project?

To understand the possible experiences offered by observation platforms installed at the top of the largest buildings Mandana Bafghinia reminds us, in her doctoral research, that Place Ville-Marie, in a strange way, did not involve a belvedere at the beginning. Corrected since, such an oversight is all the more surprising as the Empire State Building’s platform was almost the only income during the economic crisis of the 1930s. All in all, with a meagre budget of $ 13.5 million for such a unique and symbolic place, it is suspected that the jury, like the direction of the Oratory, concerned with economic realism, mainly gauged the technical and material feasibility of the projects: 50% of the points went to the functional aspects and to the integration of engineering.

In general, the teams produced the same number of documents, but significant differences can be noticed in the graphic delivery of their messages. The comparison of visualization strategies is quite enlightening, since it evokes an immense interior space, dimly lit, which is almost impossible to account without resorting to a general section, since models were not accepted. If the perspective section probably assured the success of Atelier TAG / Architecture 49 consortium’s presentation, we note above all the impressive amount of additional technical plans - mechanical and structural plans - which visibly reassured through "a clear, thoughtful and relevant mechanical approach". For both this team and Provencher Roy, we note a very small number of schemes and diagrams, while the plethora of construction details offered by the EVOQ team contrasts with the small amount of constructive information scattered on the boards of Affleck de la Riva, which might explain the jury’s comments about how their proposal was "structurally risky".

The comparison between the teams’ graphical choices on their presentation boards is also striking. The winning team’s compositional mastery is largely based on a clever dosing of the figure-ground ratio: a strong visual element, usually a rendered perspective, floating clearly above a bed of technical information, complex, but harmonized using subtle gray tones. Provencher Roy's graphic design, on the other hand, seems too complex, hierarchically dissonant, and displays a variety of colours that are sometimes gaudy, which is generally damaging when attempting a serene reading of the concept. Some purplish tones reminiscent of the aurora borealis may have led the jury to label this project as too "futuristic". Although the EVOQ team, like Provencher Roy, played on the colours, the range of hues of salmon hue creates a coherent thread that supports the highly technical side of the concept. Finally, Affleck de la Riva deploys their project following a rigorous and airy graphical grid, but all too schematic to properly evoke the variations of the atmosphere. The renderings all received an orange treatment that seems to echo the stained glass windows existing at drum-level, but the absence of a perspective section, illustrating the atmosphere in the inter-dome, has clearly complicated the understanding of the proposed space. This was a fatal mistake for this project, as it is now clear that this competition has resulted in four readings of the dome through a section.
Let's summarize:
- The main section of the dome for Affleck de la Riva is simplified with little narrative qualities, and especially it is uninhabited. It sometimes serves as a summary diagram of circulation, sometimes as a strongly captioned didactic section, emphasizing the many aspects of the standards upgrading expected by the program. The section says nothing, evokes nothing more than plans and, in some cases, fades the dome.
- For Provencher Roy, the section is actually flooded with light. But the choice of a yellow light whose fluorescent tint is neither realistic nor truly mystical, does not help the understanding of the project’s qualities. This same clumsy yellow goes so far as to tint the characters meant to give the scale of a project that takes flight only in certain perspective views that inevitably echo astronomical observatories. Although it actually illustrates a myriad of floating candles projected on the dome, a quick reading creates an analogy with a scientific device. The Oratory certainly did not want us to confuse its dome with a technical object and at other times, in the face of diktats of the Church, Galileo knew how to change the virtues of reason in the face of those of faith.
- The EVOQ / BPA / NCK team used a very rich range of representations through their section: sometimes technical, sometimes shaded, always didactic. Visibly admiring the structural elements, concrete and steel, a dome erected in full modernity, the designers couldn’t resist maintaining the gray tint of concrete throughout their boards. It remains that the sections thus presented recall these beautiful drawings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, showing these great big globes, sometimes technical objects, sometimes panoramic machines, which we praised in world’s fairs. If the demonstration is perfectly coherent from the point of view of the strongly tectonic concept of the project, the celebration of the existing architectonic structure (the jury will note the quality of the patrimonial approach) however risked turning the spiritual ascent into a constructive apotheosis. This team pushed the analysis to produce beautiful study models and we guess that the great rendered section was probably heavily influenced by the technical lighting of these objects that could not be presented to the jury.
- Only the winning team used the alpha and omega of the section, namely the perspective section. In Atelier TAG / Architecture 49’s project, there is only one section on each of the three boards: sometimes a purely schematic representation of the user’s journey, sometimes dedicated to the principles of ventilation - a crucial question - and the whole project is perfectly summarized in one perspective section showing not only the proposed device, but its relation to the interiority of the basilica. Digging the section into the basilica increases the vertigo and the staging is reminiscent of those dissection theatres that fascinated the few initiates during the Renaissance. It is equally a reminder of these beautiful drawings that illustrate the popular books on the operation of cathedrals or labyrinth mazes: everything is said in a single section both narrative and explanatory.

It appears, however, that the jury certainly hesitated, particularly among the projects of TAG and EVOQ, since it concluded that "none of the proposals (offered) a convincing solution to the problem of circulation and access control of the museum and the inter-dome, and by the same token, the proposed locations of the ticket office". In other words, in the absence of a spiritual journey, it would have been desirable to ensure the best financial management of this new manna for the Oratory. Remaining quantitative, this same jury has calculated point by point the merits of the projects to finally agree that the one from consortium Atelier TAG / Architecture 49 - Stantec SDK should prevail while highlighting some of its merits:
- The quality of the presentation and the expression of the future potential for project; the jury perceived a sensitivity to listening on the part of the team.
- The quality of the presentation and the graphic design facilitated the understanding of the project.
- The depth of the project’s analysis through its various components, including mechanics.
- The ingenuity of the concept through the use of the veil hiding or revealing the existing elements, such as a breadcrumb trail unifying the different levels of the museum's oratory.
- The promising potential of this guiding idea as to its modulation according to places and functions.
- Respect for existing infrastructure and their development by the veil.
- The development of the reserves by the proposed views on the white reserve.
- The evocation of an animation potential independent of the architectural concept.
- The conceptual approach allowing an adaptation of the interventions throughout time, in a spirit of durability; a reversible project.
- A clear, thoughtful and relevant mechanical approach facilitating its integration into the existing.
- A demonstration of the potential for respecting the budget thanks to the simplicity of the architectural gesture.

The budget would have been respected so much that it may be necessary to speak of a small miracle in a competitive situation, since the external consultant responsible for assessing the jury's proposals beforehand have noticed that the TAG / Architecture 49 project did not use the entire budget. Transcendence all the more remarkable that the jury will call thereafter "a certain dosage in the use of the veil; it aims to veil and unveil elements without creating architectural forms”. The work of God cannot be reformed, so it would be unlikely that budget overruns are now acceptable in the construction phase.

It will remain to find a name for what will become a world-class attraction. The contest organizers have been cautious about "phase A-4" in the official documents. It is clear that the concerns raised by the use of the term "observatory" are based both on possible confusion with the pure scientific dimension of an astronomical observatory - the Oratory is not a university pavilion - and probably also on homophony between the observatory and the oratory. It remains that it is indeed an observation platform. In the form of a final revelation, we would gladly suggest that the good old term "belvedere", whose origin is architectural before being landscaped, serves as a point of reference and get visitors, believers or not, to experience an inner ascent of the Belvedere of the Oratory.

Jean-Pierre Chupin, Maxime Leblanc, Raphaëlle Leclerc
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