by Jincy IypeSep 02, 2021
The dynamic redesign of the massive Montreal Biodome science museum in Canada by KANVA astonishes with its soaring concrete architecture that houses multiple ecosystems and a multi-level visitor experience inside. Done in collaboration with NEUF architect(e)s, the revamp strikes an impressive balance between the latter and the remarkable replicas of five ecosystems found in the Americas – Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St Lawrence, Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Labrador Coast.
Montreal Biodome is Canada’s largest science museum, housed in the former Velodrome, constructed for the Montréal 1976 Olympic Games, and is considered a “jewel in the crown of a consortium of facilities that collectively account for the most visited museum spaces in Canada,” according to KANVA, a multidisciplinary architectural firm co-founded by Rami Bebawi and Tudor Radulescu. After winning an international architectural competition in 2014, KANVA was commissioned for the $25 million project by Space for Life, the body charged with overseeing operations of the Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium, and Botanical Garden.
“Our mandate was to enhance the immersive experience between visitors and the museum’s distinct ecosystems, as well as to transform the building’s public spaces,” shares Bebawi, a partner of KANVA and the project’s lead architect. “In doing so, we proudly embraced the role that the Biodome plays in sensitising humans to the intricacies of natural environments, particularly in the current context of climate change and the importance of understanding its effects,” he continues.
KANVA began by studying the multifaceted building, described by them as “a living entity comprised of ecosystems and very complex machinery that is critical to supporting life”. They also realised that any sort of intervention would need to be extremely sensitive and require careful coordination and management of numerous micro-interventions for the adaptive reuse.
“Everybody understood the global vision, and they carried that understanding with them in the spirit of collaboration,” says Bebawi. “It was a very inspirational experience that will serve as a model for better addressing environmental issues in design in the future”.
They began by targeting spaces that could be transformed to augment the value of the building’s architectural heritage. Apart from carving out the core, the low ceiling of the building was demolished to clear out space at the entrance, opening it up to the original roof, allowing visitors to deeply appreciate the impressive scale and magnificence of the existing space. “In gutting the existing ceiling, we opened the space skyward to the building’s extraordinary roof, composed of massive skylight panels that infuse an abundance of natural light,” explains Bebawi. By revealing the systems and mechanics of the Biodome, the intricacies of life and the structure’s essence is revealed and symbolised.
This massive open space now formed the airy, well-lit core between the ecosystems, post which KANVA parametrically designed a “living skin” that wrapped around these, serving as a guiding accompaniment to visitors. The new core also intensifies the sensorial experience of visitors who step in from the neutrality of the outside world to the multi-sensorial discovery of the adjacent, rich ecosystems inside migration.
KANVA shares that like the massive scale of the existing structure and its complicated structural engineering, the installation of the prefabricated pure white, biophilic skin was a monumental task. The white skin that divides the central lobby from the designed ecosystems was anchored to a primary steel structure and was curved and stretched around a bowed aluminum structure using tension, cantilevering, and triangular beams for suspension. This translucent skin sets dialogue with the skylights above, “with beveled horizons that elicit a sense of calm and infinity,” says Radulescu.
“It’s a very powerful tool, half a kilometer in length and rising nearly four storeys,” mentions Bebawi. “It’s extremely emblematic of the space, and the white purity beautifully highlights and contrasts the original structural concrete.”
Then begin linear passages that play on senses lead into the Biodome’s five dynamic, immersive ecosystems, designed to emerge as sensorial wonders which host more than 2,50,000 animals and 500 species of plant species. “From the calming lobby hall, the undulating living skin funnels visitors into a 10-meter tunnel leading to the central core, where their exploration of five ecosystems, including Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Labrador Coast, begins,” relays KANVA.
The entry tunnel has a gradual floor incline, which aims to slow down the pace of the walker via a compressed white passage, preparing the mind for a fresh sensory input that lies ahead. As the visitor reaches the central core, smaller slits in the living skin called eco-transits, lead them toward the entrances of the ecosystems. Automatic doors at the end of the eco-transit open into the ecosystem which remains visually concealed by a curtain of beads. “By the time visitors pass through the beads, they have been exposed to the climate, smells, and sounds of the natural habitat before seeing anything,” the design team continues.
KANVA designed a new ice tunnel at the entrance of the Subpolar Regions ecosystem, that acclimatises visitors during the transition, while the sounds and smells of puffins and penguins ahead add additional sensory stimulation.
An entirely new level was added vertically, above the ecosystems, accessible via walkways, enabling visitors to traverse through the foliage of majestic trees of both, the Tropical Rainforest and Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystems. These lead to a new mezzanine level which provides stunning aerial views of the various ecosystems and the pure white nucleus of the Montreal Biodome. It also serves as a technical floor, with interactive educational exhibits and insight into the elaborate machinery required to preserve the facility’s delicate ecosystems.
KANVA also relays that prior to designing a new water basin for the facility’s resident penguins, they spent weeks with biologists and veterinarians to gain knowledge into the species’ swimming patterns. Similarly, they also studied the architectural prowess of the beavers to provide authenticity to an observation point where visitors can observe the furry friends in their natural habitat. “The idea emerged to let the beavers carve the wood themselves, which was then dried and used to line the interior of the space,” says Radulescu.
“Before you can even begin to design in an environment with living species all around you, education and a notion of humbleness is required,” says Bebawi. “We take basic assumptions about ourselves for granted when we design for other human beings, but designing for an otter or a sloth requires that you re-educate yourself,” he adds further.
“We need to reconnect people with the environment, and the Biodome does that in a refreshing way that we are proud to have contributed to,” states Bebawi. “This project has provided us with six years of invaluable knowledge, preparing us for new and innovative approaches to future projects where architecture becomes a tool to promote and facilitate environmental change.”
Name: Montreal Biodome
Location: Montreal, Canada
Surface Area: 35,000 sqm
Year of completion: 2020
Architect: KANVA in collaboration with NEUF architect(e)s
Electromechanical engineer: Bouthillette Parizeau inc.
Structural Engineer: NCK inc.
Building code specialist and cost consultant: Groupe GLT+
Lighting design consultant: LightFactor
Collaborating exhibition designer: La bande à Paul
Collaborating set designer: Anick La Bissonnière
Collaborating museologist: Nathalie Matte
Wayfinding specialist: Bélanger Design