Unexpected edge conditions and juxtapositions characterize not only the location of McGill University’s New Music Building (NMB—until it gets a donor name), but also the complexities of the department itself. The site, a sliver of land at the southeastern corner of the 80-acre campus, lies at an intersection along Sherbrooke Street, a busy commercial strip in downtown Montreal, where the visual clamor of fast-food joints, upscale restaurants, and high-rise chain hotels competes with the rush of automotive traffic and the underground rumble of nearby subway lines. Hardly the obvious spot for a recital hall and acutely sensitive recording studios. But the parcel also happens to border the university’s main music building, the ornate limestone Strathcona Hall. And it was essential that the new structure connect with the old programmatically and spatially.
Adding to an already complicated mix of site adjacencies, the new, $30 million building, by architects Saucier + Perrotte with Menkes Shooner Dagenais Architectes, had to engage a department drawn from a remarkable range of disciplines. While McGill’s music school, with both undergraduate and graduate programs, takes pride in its traditional conservatory and such humanities-based studies as musicology, its staff and faculty run the gamut from respirologists to physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and computer, sound, and electrical engineers—often approaching music from places deep in the realms of science and technology.
Working from the outside in and inside out, Saucier + Perrotte principal Gilles Saucier took cues simultaneously from the campus configuration, the urban context, the local topography, and an evolving set of interior spatial needs.
Saucier recognized that while Sherbrooke Street speaks of a bustling downtown, the quieter, perpendicular Aylmer Street, defining the parcel’s eastern edge, reveals key aspects of the landscape. Like a topographic section cut, Aylmer ascends a hill from the St. Lawrence River and Montreal’s Old City, to the south, continuing along a plateau as it extends through the McGill campus, gradually rising to the small but iconic mountain called Mont Real. Taking inspiration from these real and metaphoric geological conditions, the architect imagined the building as exposed strata that had “eroded” from the once-larger mountain to create the plateau. As built, the 126,750-square-foot rectangular structure, rising eight stories above grade, has a strong horizontality along Aylmer Street, abstractly expressing the fictitious layers of “geological history.” Here, Saucier introduces a deep concrete band, 20 feet up from the ground, intended to evoke a former ground plane, extending south from the mountain. Black and gray zinc cladding, with long, dynamically staggered strip windows, compose the elevation above the concrete band, with glass, brick, limestone, and concrete below it.
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