Legacy Lines: Montreal’s Sustainable Blueprint

Range Rover & SHARP

Montreal’s architectural renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s brought with it iconic landmarks that not only captured the world’s attention but also signified a bold redefinition of urban space. These structures, emblematic of a forward-thinking era, are still celebrated for their innovative design and enduring influence. 

Today, these historical benchmarks are inspiring a new wave of architectural thought, led by figures like Nicolas Lapierre of Atelier L’Abri. Lapierre and his team draw on Montreal’s rich legacy to envision a sustainable future for the city, merging time-honoured aesthetics with contemporary considerations. 

L'Abri On Integrating Sustainability With Architectural Design
Nicolas Lapierre (left), and Francis M. Labrecque (right)

1. On Reflecting Historical Inspiration in Modern Design

Lapierre: We mainly focus on sustainable and, we could say, projects that have a positive impact from an ecological, social and also economic standpoint, trying to create added value. One thing we see is that designing and creating architecture today, and even urban planning, cannot really be addressed without taking into account the environmental crisis we’re in. It is a driving factor in how we approach design. 

But, at the same time, we don’t want it to be the only thing that defines us. So we’ve incorporated sustainability as an underlying layer of thought throughout our projects. It’s important that we strike a balance between responsible architecture, aesthetics and functionality, because we see one of our main goals is to make sustainable architecture attractive. Maybe our driving motivation at the moment is really to not force sustainability onto people, but rather to bring people towards what’s sustainable.

Silo 5. Photo by Max Neubacher.
Silo 5. Photo by Max Neubacher.
Living Example: SSENSE Canada, a new vision for retail

They brought in David Chipperfield, the English architect who won the Pritzker — which is the highest recognition for architecture in the world. It’s a great example of international architects coming into Montreal. It’s within an existing heritage building with a very contemporary interior design, very minimalistic. It’s just a very beautifully made design. It’s inspiring to see how we can transform those buildings into new spaces that will attract new crowds. It’s done with very good taste, which is important when it comes to preserving the character of this city.

2. On Integrating Sustainability With Architectural Design

	On Integrating Sustainability With Architectural Design

There was a time in the 1960s and the 1970s where Montreal really redefined itself through architecture and very big projects like Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Olympics. Obviously, that brought a lot of attention to the city. I think it was an interesting time because it was very forward-thinking. It was really a big time of transformation, but also of positive change and an idea for a more positive future. 

Living Example: Espace pour la vie — an expansive site committed to protecting the biodiversity of our planet.

“We can already build what will be the standard in 15 to 25 years.”

Nicolas Lapierre

There are different spaces dedicated to natural sciences around the Olympic Stadium on the old Olympic sites. It’s really great to see how the city of Montreal has — in the past decade, but really more in recent years — continued to develop that site so that it’s not just a relic. Today, with these institutions and the fact they continue to invest in renovating the structures, or add new structures such as the Insectarium — it’s really a vibrant place for culture. The whole site is a great example of how we should continue to invest in the existing fabric of the city and develop on the great landmarks and sites of the past to create new attractions for current and future generations.

3. On The Goal Of Attractive Sustainable Architecture

When we look at architecture and construction [today], there’s actually a lot of things that we already know but just haven’t done yet. I think that allows us to be optimistic. We already know most of the best practices we could implement today to have a real meaningful impact on the way we build, and how future cities will be built. So we like to think that we can already build what will be the standard in 15 to 25 years. There is sort of a paradigm shift that people have been talking about for a while. It’s not just theoretical or token; we can really implement it today.

I think architects and designers of our generation will hopefully see that they already have the means to transform the city, probably into something that could go back to these very inspiring and very transformative projects that Montreal saw in the ’60s and ’70s. People then were inspired by architecture, and social change was conveyed throughout architectural projects that were very bold, heroic and disruptive. 

Living Example: The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, the city’s premiere fine arts museum

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

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It’s had a series of additions over the years. The museum has managed to grow to be able to showcase more of its collections to the public. That’s obviously the logic of a central city or metropolis — it’s always changing, it’s always evolving. But if you do it in a manner where you have a direct dialogue with the past, and you’re also able to look forward and still be innovative, then that’s where you really create something that transcends time and generation.

4. On Innovating for the Future

If we can bring that approach and that thinking back, then we really have the opportunity to create meaningful change. I think that’s where we’re lucky to work in a city like Montreal, where we have these testimonies from the past, from previous architects that still stand today. 

If an architect today visits Montreal, they’re most likely going to want to visit Habitat and Westmount Square and other projects. That tells a lot about how great and timeless these projects were back then, and how there is no reason that we would not be able [to channel them] today. I’d like to say that, ideally, a project that we would design today, a very good project, you would not know whether it was designed at the turn of the last century, in the 1950s, in the ’80s, or today. Quality and great design is not tied to a moment.

Living Example: Centre PHI, Montreal’s versatile venue for avant-garde digital arts

This is an art centre that was established in the early 2000s. They actually have a new building that’s on the way. It really has become a new institution for art and culture in Montreal by integrating itself within its historical fabrics. It’s the same trend of having old historical buildings, neighbourhoods are being repurposed and retransformed to bring a new public program to them.

5. On Building Upon Legacies

We started as a young office and as young architects and designers, mostly working on renovation projects and transforming old buildings into new ones. Now we work more on new buildings in all regions of Quebec, from the north to the Magdalen Islands. But we really started by transforming old buildings and giving them a new life, which is also the most sustainable thing you can do. The most sustainable building is the one that you don’t demolish. 

Sensitivity to preservation and creating buildings that will last longer and that will be transmitted to future generations, is maybe how we maintain quality and character throughout the city. I think architects of our generation that will work on large-scale projects in Montreal will be able to maintain that sensitivity, because there is a notion of scale. The larger you go in scale, the harder it is. Montreal’s development has been slower, but it’s also catching up.

Living Examples: reimagining Montreal’s venerable Tour du Port de Montréal, and a rejuvenated home for Crew Collective & Café

A really new contemporary building within the Old Port and facing the Montreal skyline, the Tour du Port de Montréal resonates with the Old Port’s industrial architecture, while also welcoming the public into a new space, giving you new views both of the river and downtown skyline. It’s very well made and it integrates within its existing context by bringing in a new contemporary structure.

Crew Collective and Cafe. Photo by Max Neubacher.
Crew Collective and Cafe. Photo by Max Neubacher.

The Crew Collective & Café, meanwhile, is a project by Montreal architect Henri Kleins, and it’s really the transformation of a landmark in Old Montreal. Located in a heritage building that was once the Royal Bank of Canada, the space was fully repurposed for a collaborative workspace and café. It shows how dense areas need to adapt and transform to new modes of working and living. It’s really well done in terms of incorporating contemporary design within the existing restoration of the historical landmark.

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