Quebec, Canada

Dan Hanganu + C't' Leahy Cardas

Quebec City, famous for its cobblestone streets and 17th- and 18th-century architecture, is one of the few places in North America that might be mistaken for Old World Europe. But beyond Old Town’s historic fortifications, there is plenty of evidence that Quebec is more than a charming relic. While the banks of the nearby Saint Lawrence are not as active a transport hub as they were in their 19th-century heyday, they are dotted with signs of industry, such as grain silos and smokestacks.


This still-working waterfront is quickly becoming part of an urban recreational network of linked parks and trails. For this reason, Canada’s public works and parks agencies decided to locate the headquarters for the festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Quebec’s founding on a pier at the edge of a man-made harbor just to the north of the walled city. The facility, know as “Espace 400e,” was conceived to house anniversary-related exhibitions, performances, and other events throughout the summer of 2008. Once the celebrations were over, it would become the home of a permanent exhibition examining the history of immigration to Canada.

Since the mid-1950s, the site had been occupied by a three-story, poured-in-place concrete structure built as a warehouse and converted to a small museum devoted to the history of Quebec’s port three decades later. Rather than demolishing the building to make way for the new program, the project’s designers, a consortium comprising Montreal-based Dan Hanganu Architects and local firm Côté Leahy Cardas, proposed enlarging and transforming it.

For this recent, $7.2 million (U.S.) adaptation completed last May, the two firms doubled the existing museum’s size to about 47,000 square feet, with the addition of another poured-in-place concrete structure to the south. Between the old and new construction, they inserted a 10-foot, 6-inch-wide sliver of space, daylit from above, wrapping the complete composition in a glazed curtain wall. Inside the facade, the architects preserved the original building’s aluminum panel cladding. The double-skin approach minimized demolition debris and improved the thermal performance. It also provided cohesion between the original structure and the addition.

But even with its new envelope, Espace 400e is not a homogeneous glass box. Through the curtain-wall panels that surround the older portion of the building, the original cladding is visible. The panels on the new half are transparent or opaque, depending on programmatic requirements of the interior. Much of the glass skin is imprinted with a repeated image of tall ships taken from a 19th-century archival photograph—one of the building’s few literal references to the maritime context. And in several places, such as the balustrade of a top-floor terrace, the glazing extends vertically beyond the interior enclosure. The strategy makes the limits of the building ambiguous, according to Gilles Prud’homme, project architect from Hanganu’s firm. “We started with a system that was very straightforward. Then we played with it,” he says.

This playfulness is also evident in elements that pop out and protrude from the facades. For example, a portion of the second-floor exhibition area cantilevers from the front face of the building. Covered with a perforated-metal scrim, it marks the entrance below, especially when dramatically illuminated at night. From a side elevation, a ramp linking exhibition areas in the new and old structures juts out at a slight angle. Its glass enclosure has aluminum mullions that seem randomly canted in different directions. These projecting pieces provide “texture,” and are like “bijoux,” or jewelry, on 400e’s otherwise smooth silicone-gasket curtain wall, says Côté Leahy Cardas principal Jacques Côté.

The building is now closed while the permanent exhibition is fabricated and installed. But when it reopens next spring, visitors will be able to travel through the lobby en route to the end of the pier, or linger in an adjacent event space that has a tactile fabric-wrapped wall. They will also be able to ascend the elevator to view the exhibition, in a Guggenheim Museum–like sequence, starting with the upper-floor galleries.

On their way back to the lobby, museumgoers will traverse the slotlike atrium, where most of the surfaces are light-reflective white or muted gray. Short runs of stairs bridge the space, while perforated-metal balustrades layer against a sculptural exposed-concrete shear wall that structurally links the old and new construction.

The bright and spatially dynamic atrium contrasts sharply with the almost black-box environment found inside the adjacent galleries. Since they are now empty, their functional success is difficult to evaluate. However, the rooms seem configured to keep visitors’ attention focused. The simple spaces have exposed mechanical systems, dark-gray epoxy-coated floors, with black walls and ceilings. Views of Old Quebec’s fortified walls and the port are provided from a few carefully selected vantage points. This controlled contact with the exterior is one of the 400e’s chief achievements, creating an expressive and contemporary building that acknowledges its rich context.