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Duel of Fortresses at Ubisoft Montreal
by Aurélien Catros, published 2020-05-22
A rare example of a competition entirely organized by a private company, the competition for the redevelopment of the premises of the Ubisoft company in 2013 offers the opportunity to observe architects and designers serving clients capable of modeling unique virtual environments themselves, which will serve as framework for games with planetary resonance.

In 1997, ten years after its creation in France, Ubisoft established its head quarter in Montreal. The firm now has six studios in Canada, more than 3,500 people working in the Montreal branch, just over 20% of the multinational’s employees. Located in Mile-End, the studio is housed in a former five-level textile factory built in 1904 by architects Joseph Perrault and Simon Lesage.

In 2012, Ubisoft invited eleven agencies to present their respective visions for the redevelopment of this fragment of Montreal’s industrial history by answering two questions: in which spaces can creativity best be expressed? What spaces – individual and collective – do the Ubisoft employees of Montreal need to do their jobs well? Five agencies or consortia – Sid Lee Architecture ; Lemay ; the Jean de Lessard creative Designer group, VAD associated designers, Héloïse Thibodeau architect, Zone Signature, Upperkut and Technorme; the Atelier Pierre Thibault and David Tajchman group; and the Moreaux Hauspy Associés Designers, Provencher Roy and TP1 – were selected according to an internal and private selection process to present a project.

The challenge of the competition was twofold, oscillating between furniture design and architectural renovation project. If Ubisoft wishes to provide a work environment for its employees that promotes their creativity, productivity and well-being, the company was also looking for an architectural vision capable of renewing its brand image, calling for an architectural gesture able to highlight both the historic heritage of the building and the firm’s reputation.

Although showing a fine understanding of the production processes at Ubisoft, the project of the Jean de Lessard Designer group was rejected quickly for the little consideration given to the spirit of the place, despite the flexibility of its plan: quality explicitly sought by the jury.

Paradoxically, the diametrically opposite position which was adopted by the grouping of the Pierre Thibault workshop by concentrating its efforts on the continuity of the place with the building and with the district did not gain unanimity either. Noticed by the jury, it was judged to be out of step with ‘’the essence and culture of Ubisoft’’, in discord with the image that the company wanted to express through this project. The proposal of this group also emphasizes a sustainable approach materialized by the omnipresence of vegetation as well as through furniture mainly made of recycled materials. If these choices are widely welcomed by the jury, they nevertheless generate many doubts about the ergonomics of the workstations, and this despite the flexibility that these seem to allow. Although mentioned as important issues, one can legitimately wonder whether the ecological imperative and the integration into the culture of the neighborhood are truly compatible with the expected program, whose internal patronymic of the company "the Castle" refers more to a warlike and defensive vision. The jury will confirm the medieval analogy by stressing that "it is a war that we are waging here", opposing the "bucolic and far from reality" character which is perceived in the group's proposal.

Only three projects seemed capable of providing the claimed battlefield; and for good reason: two of them are largely based on the metaphor of the fortress, however rejected by the jury in its final report. Like the ecological dimension which, although sought after, seemed to oppose the ergonomics of a video game studio, the concept of openness to the world of the studio seemed to conflict with the extreme confidentiality in which the firm's employees work, forcing the architects to struggle with conflicting expectations.

Less appreciated than the two “fortress” projects of Lemay and Sid Lee Architecture, the project of the Moureaux Hauspy Associés Designers and Provencher Roy group has chosen to draw inspiration from the arteries, streets and alleys of the neighborhood to organize and prioritize spaces of the project. The only project to offer a truly imposing and ambitious entrance hall, it was resolutely on the "openness" side of the programmatic contradiction.

On the other side of the analogy, two "warrior organizations" won wide support and were only distinguished by the organization of workspaces, deemed "weak and underdeveloped" in Sid Lee architecture's proposal. However, the jury noted "the great functional qualities" of the Lemay project, winner of the competition, which "places the user at the center of the project". This acute consideration of those to whom space is addressed during its design recalls the categorizations of players detailed by Jesse Schell in The Art of Game Design, a work widely used in the video game industry which suggests that game designers adapt playful virtual spaces for different types of users.

Two spatial interpretations of the same analogy were therefore opposed in this original competition. In the Sid Lee project, the fortress will be marked above all by its autonomy - even its self-sufficiency - and will be organized around a "symbolic tower", materialized by a main staircase which is reminiscent of these medieval dungeons, at the heart of fortified castles, which protect the space below and offer a panoptic view of the surroundings. In the Lemay project, the castle will be marked above all by its covered path along the ramparts which dominate the city, but which does not protect it. The towers will become points of view and control and the vertical circulation will disperse in the building while the glass prism - central keep - is nothing more than a signal and an emblem of the place at an urban scale.

If such analogies will be considered a little too foreign to the spirit of the company, the spaces that they will have allowed to project on the old factory knew how to make an impression. Ultimately, the jury will prefer Lemay's proposal in which it will project its own analogy: "the idea of the ascent to the glass prism [as] the desire to shine and contribute to the influence of the company", and even a "long quest for success". The architect's analogies therefore prove fruitful when they help the architect to design, but the spaces themselves owe part of their success to their ability to spark imaginations in its inhabitants, who can then appropriate them.

In the game Assassin’s Creed IV, in production at the studio during the competition, players are invited to immerse themselves in the premises of a large fictional company, "Abstergo Entertainment", which also creates video games. If the ’mise en abyme’ is obvious, one can wonder to what extent the designers of the virtual spaces were able to be inspired by the different proposals to model these high-tech premises, punctuated by vegetation, organized around a large glass elevator which , from a large majestic hall leads the player to a gigantic glass roof. Is this a chimerical and ideal synthesis of the proposals of the architects that the game designers of Ubisoft offer us in return?

Translated by Jade Swail
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