Saturday 29 July 2000
Architects in our good books
Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec a step in ascent
of husband and wife team
GAZETTE / La Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec president
Lise Bissonnette (left), Canadian Centre for
Architecture founder Phyllis Lambert (centre) and
architect Patricia Patkau examine model of library,
which is scheduled to open in 2003 on the Palais du
Commerce site in Montreal's Quartier Latin at a cost of
DON MACKINNON, CP / The
Seabird Island School is one of the team's most renowned
DON MACKINNON, CP / The
Newton Library stands out as an enticing landmark in
DON MACKINNON, CP /
Patricia and John Patkau flank partner Michael
started with a photograph. When architects John and Patricia
Patkau sat down to design the new Grande Bibliotheque du
Quebec, hanging over the design table was a photo of Christ
Church Cathedral on stilts, the earth underneath scooped out
to make way for Les Promenades de la Cathedrale.
A husband and wife design team, the Patkaus are known for
their ability to find what they call the "particularity" of a
site - be it a rocky West Coast island or the centre of a
major North American metropolis - and making it the focal
point of the design. In this case, the photograph of the
cathedral was graphic evidence that in Montreal, topography is
not always what it seems.
"The photo brought a powerful realization that the ground
level in Montreal isn't a solid boundary," Patricia Patkau
said. "The city really exists on two levels."
Interviewed in her downtown Vancouver office, she shows off
the first draft result of that realization, a little
balsa-wood model no more than 30 centimetres long, with a
series of broad internal ramps rising from one level to
another and then falling again, linking a multi-level
structure in one continuous plane. "We decided to make our own
This man-made landscape accomplished a number of goals.
Passengers coming off the metro at Berri-UQaM will be able to
see through a sunken sunlit garden into the lower-level
children's library. With luck, they'll also be drawn in to
wander up a slight incline to a landing overlooking the
children's theatre, from where another slight incline leads to
the main information desk. Almost without knowing what
happened, passers-by will have been attracted to the heart of
"Particularity" wasn't the only thing to consider, however.
There was also cost. At $163 per square foot, the budget for
the $58.3-million GBQ is relatively modest, particularly in
comparison with the $637 per square foot budgeted for the new
Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library, or even the $281 per
square foot spent on Moshe Safdie's Vancouver Public Library.
Money goes a little farther in construction-hungry Montreal,
of course, but in monumental terms the GBQ would still have to
be modest. For that reason, the Patkaus opted for a box.
Or two boxes, actually: a smaller, grander box at the
Ontario St. end to house the Quebec collection, and a larger
box at the opposite end for the general collection. Linking
the two is the same system of internal walkways, while a
common copper sheathing encapsulates both.
There's some irony in this simplicity. The Patkaus, in
their work to date, have been noted for highly complex and
"They are probably the best and most original architects
practicing in Canada at the moment, and among the best in
North America," said James Russell, editor at large of the New
York-based Architectural Record. Russell, in fact, can't speak
highly enough of the Patkaus's work.
Russell praised not only their form-giving talents but also
their sensitivity toward materials, proportion and setting.
He recently nominated the pair for the Chrysler prize, an
annual award given to architects whose talents - while great -
have yet to really burst upon the scene.
Among the Patkaus's most recognized designs to date is the
Seabird Island School, built for a Coast Salish Indian band in
Agassiz, B.C. Set in the shadow of the province's Coast Range,
the school turns its broad back to the mountain winds on the
north side, while on its south side a large sheltered,
windowed expanse looks out over the Fraser Valley.
It is, according to Russell, "a memorable composition of
folded wing-like roofs, hefty posts and rib-like rafters that
manages to evoke native imagery while being of our time."
Designing it, Patricia Patkau says, also took a great deal
of time. There wasn't much left over in the way of money or
energy to spend on materials.
Of late, her own architectural tastes have been inclining
more to buildings where the form is restrained but the
materials and detailing are rich and varied.
That, plus the exigencies of cost, prompted the couple (who
design side- by-side, at the same desk) to choose a simple
form for the Montreal library, set to open in 2003. They look
for elegance in the materials - the copper-shingle cladding
and the rich wood interior. "How the box is carved will add
the richness," Patricia said.
One of the most interesting aspects of the design - and
what she seems to mean by "carving" - is the way in which the
building will be used to frame views of the surrounding city.
In other Patkau designs - notably the Strawberry Vale
School near Victoria - internal-view axes and openings in the
building shell were used to showcase such external elements as
the ocean, rocks or gardens. The Grande Bibliotheque has been
carved to frame views of the city, including the Old Port,
Place Ville Marie and Mount Royal. Linking these views
together is a bottom-to-top pathway - a goat path, Patricia
calls it - running on the outer edge of the building.
Those wandering this path will be treated to a wide variety
of architectural spaces - another Patkau hallmark.
For those uninterested in such niceties - or just in a
hurry - the GBQ will house a functional central core, with
standard stairs and elevators moving up and down between
Functionally is important to the Patkaus. Among form-giving
architects, that, too, is a bit of an anomaly.
Many - think of Vancouver's Arthur Erickson or Big O
designer Roger Taillibert - are more interested in the beauty
of a design than in whether it stands or keeps out the rain.
One of their most successful designs to date was,
promisingly enough, the Newton Library in Surrey, B.C.
Stuck as they were in a suburban wasteland of strip malls
and big-box outlets, library managers there wanted something
"It was meant to look like more than a box," said librarian
David Conn, who has worked in the building since it opened in
1991. "It was meant to stand out as a civic monument."
The Patkaus's solution was to surround an affordable
one-storey structure with two-storey glass windows. The roof
then slanted down and in from either side to join in the
middle, one storey lower, creating an inverted V-shape.
The structure was intriguing - and instantly recognizable.
The windows gave the building tremendous street presence. They
also let in an abundance of natural light. Sunlight may be
hard on the books, but in a fast-growing city with many
immigrants, library managers wanted to announce to the public
that here was a place they could feel welcome and comfortable.
According to Conn, it's been a stunning success. And
despite the original roof design, in the decade he's been in
the building, it hasn't had a single leak - or any other
structural fault, for that matter. What the building has drawn
is a steady stream of architects on tour - at least one group
a month, Conn said - to see the Patkaus's work.
The Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec should have a far greater
effect, both on Montreal and on the Patkaus themselves. Just
designing it marks a step in their careers, from small public
institutions to grand civic monuments.
It's something they've been anticipating for a long time.
And now that it's arrived, Patricia said, she has found the
design process to be much the same. As with planned new
library, one simply moves from one level to the other, almost