Changes are afoot in the staunchly French Canadian city of Québec, founded in 1608 and known more for its quality croissants than its innovations. Last week, on Québec province’s National Day, 24 June, its largest ever cultural project opened to the public. At the ceremony, its designer Shohei Shigematsu of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) proclaimed triumphantly: ‘This will be the first major public building that a foreign architect has designed here’.
The building is the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion – named after the locally-born mining entrepreneur who made the lead donation – which transforms the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ). It is the latest achievement for Shigematsu, director of the fast-expanding OMA New York office where current projects range from the Faena Arts Center in Miami (opens October); design for the Metropolitan Museum’s show ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology’ (until 14 August); a ‘long duration’ theatre at the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) at Hudson in upstate New York (in progress); and the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (whose commission they won this month).
At the opening, there was much talk of Shigematsu’s relationship with OMA’s co-founder Rem Koolhaas. ‘I learnt only from Rem’, said Shigematsu of his mentor, ‘although I did other internships. But I don’t live under his ghost. I respond to him. Now I use him as a benchmark for what I want to do; I am no longer his project manager doing what I think he wants. Here’ – he gestured to our surroundings – ‘I was interested in the purity of space, for it to be seamless, stripped down, plain, so you experience the space.’
The challenge was considerable, which makes the refined simplicity and ingenuity of Shigematsu’s solution even more impressive. The MNBAQ already had three buildings: an elegant but imposing 1933 granite neoclassical building (the Gérard Morisset pavilion), an 1867 red-brick former prison (the Charles Baillairgé pavilion) and, linking them, a skylit central pavilion added in 1991. The unlikely trio stood isolated in the city’s lush rolling National Battlefields Park overlooking the monumental St Lawrence river, an expansive site where the British crushed the French in 1759 – though the subsequent century of British control is rarely mentioned here. (Each time the director of MNBAQ, Line Ouellet, cordially switched to English as she toured international visitors through the new pavilion, she was firmly told by locals to revert to French.)
What the MNBAQ wanted from this project was to double its exhibition space and also make the whole museum more inviting to both locals and the city’s millions of annual visitors, who are big contributors to its economy. The city’s substantial and well-conserved historic district, with its defensive walls and stone buildings, is a rare surviving fortified colonial city, earning it UNESCO protection status.
First, the MNBAQ bought the site of a Dominican monastery bordered by the Grand Allée, the city’s main thoroughfare, and the park. Then they inaugurated the city’s first international architecture competition and drew 108 entries. Shigematsu’s winning design was a stack of three boxes of galleries arranged in a staggered pile so they ascend from the park towards the city. They have wide plant-filled terraces on each floor; a long, three-gallery tunnel connects the pavilion to the older trio of buildings. In one stroke, using the museum and its art as the catalyst, the park seems to continue to the city while people entering from the city are drawn into the park. The experience is enhanced by judiciously placed windows which give views of mature trees, and whole walls of triple-layered glass that trap natural light for the galleries while dealing with Québec’s harsh climate.
The glass-walled lobby on Grand Allée leads to an internal piazza with a courtyard abutting the presbytery and church of Saint-Dominique. The museum intends this to be an income-generating location for private events, and its spaces are enhanced with works by Québec-born Ludovic Boney and Giorgia Volpe, a Brazilian artist resident in Québec. From here, the monumental spiral staircase at the heart of the pavilion sweeps up to galleries of modern and contemporary art by artists born or based in Québec. On the top floor, a glorious glass-walled gallery shows off the museum’s Inuit art, and Patrick Coutu’s sculpture is on the big terrace from which visitors enjoy magnificent views to the St Lawrence and beyond. The stairs also sweep down to the tunnel where Jean-Paul Riopelle’s triptych Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg is displayed for the first time.
The museum’s collection is mostly devoted to Québec art from the 1960s onwards, apart from occasional pieces and two galleries in the Gérard Morisset pavilion that set the context: one focuses on colonial Québec, the other on the mid 19th-century emergence of a distinct local style. To balance this, the pavilion has large spaces for temporary international exhibitions. However, for the opening, curator Bernard Lamarche has filled both these and some of the big galleries in Gérard Morisset pavilion and central pavilion with a splendid show of 34 large-scale installations by Québec artists from the museum’s collection – Yannnick Pouliot, Karilee Fuglem, Manon Labrecque, Murray MacDonald, Bertrand Pitt, David Altmejd and many more have their work out of storage and deservedly on public show.
This is a city with an already lively artist community, galleries such as Le Lieu and Coopérative Méduse, and a substantial historic core. Shigematsu’s inviting new spaces propel Québec into a higher league of art destinations.