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Often, architecture is pictured as a practice associated with human lives. We plan, design, and shape for human beings. So, what happens when architects plan for other living beings? What happens when architects use architecture as a tool to rethink the relationship between humans and non-human biology?
When Montréal decided to replace the city's former insectarium building, originally built in 1990, the architects who won the international competition for its replacement in 2014, emphasised representing a critical approach towards museums of natural history. The design for the insectarium was carried out by Berlin-based architects Kuehn Malvezzi with Montréal offices Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes, as well as landscape architects atelier le balto, Berlin. Their concept for the winning proposal for the Montréal Insectarium in Canada brought together Canadian architecture and nature to coexist in harmony. The new project, titled 'The Metamorphosis of the Montréal Insectarium' nestles alongside the Biodôme and botanical gardens in Espace pour la vie, the city's district of natural museums.
Following a seven-year design and construction period, the new insectarium opened to the public in 2022. With an aim to transform the public's relationship with insects, through an innovative architectural and museological approach. The museum architecture is a result of the architects' detailed analysis of 400 years of museums, orangeries, greenhouses and other architectures for the categorisation and display of the natural world. The external appearance of the insectarium presents three archetypal structures, vaguely communicating the architectural flow of spaces.
The experience of the insectarium begins with the walled Pollinator Garden. Meandering through the promenades of the garden, visitors approach the entrance of the building. Therefore, the garden acts as a transition from the unbuilt to built and from the exterior to interior, providing an introduction to the different encounters with insect life. The entrance hall of the main building, with a glass facade and sawtooth roof, leads to the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a curved, descending path with sloping walls where the immersive experience of sensory metamorphosis begins. The pathway has been designed to detach visitors from the familiar environment of the outdoors and transport them into an insect's perception of space. This walkway leads to an underground labyrinth of six perceptual alcoves which disorient human senses and mimic an insect's sight, sound, and movement.
While the One eye, many facets room simulates the pixelated vision of a fly, the Good vibes amplify the room's vibrations to reflect the sonics of a grasshopper. The room From blade to blade is a route of climbable sticks, requiring the balance of a gnat atop a leaf. As the name suggests, a Tight squeeze turns humans into cockroaches who must negotiate a tight squeeze. The world in UV replicates the ultraviolet vision of a bee and the Ceiling walk turns the world upside down.
Following the intriguing and exciting sensory experiences of the alcoves is the Tête- à-tête Gallery where visitors interact with living insects. Within niches, six bespoke viewing boxes in the gallery block out the exterior world and provide a close-up view of insects in different vivaria. The gallery then leads to the Collection Dome. The 10-metre height dome hall houses and displays the insectarium's extensive and unique collection of preserved insects on the wall, with 72 framed displays. After having witnessed this, the visitors move through a ramp to enter the Grand Vivarium. Contrasting the earthen textures of the underground spaces, the Vivarium is a spacious, light-filled greenhouse. With a range of microclimates supporting the life of varying plant and insect species, many insects such as butterflies and caterpillars move freely in the space and can be observed without barriers. Beyond the Vivarium, the insectarium also hosts spaces including creative workshops, plant production spaces, laboratories, and technical aspects.
"Acknowledging the destructive history of this conceptual separation between humans and other natural life, Kuehn Malvezzi’s design subverts museological norms and expectations. Unlike museums designed to contain changing exhibitions and displays, the Insectarium’s curatorial concept and its museological expression are held in the very architecture of the building. The precisely choreographed route through the building dissolves the divides between the human and the natural with barrier-free displays and immersive sensory experiences,” states the official release by the architects.
In their attempt to create a journey through interior design and circulation design, the architects have tried to not compromise sustainable design principles. The sawtooth roof orients towards the south, allowing the greenhouse areas to benefit from maximum natural light, throughout the year. To recover and redistribute the heat thus generated, the building uses advanced mechanical systems. In case of the underground areas, the thermal mass of the earth is used to stabilise temperature variations. The other sustainable approaches in the building include textile shades, motorised louvres, geothermal wells, roof water recuperation, and the use of local, sustainable, VOC-free materials.
Throughout the museum design, Kuehn Malvezzi alongside Montréal offices Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes translate architecture into a story that narrates the life cycle of an insect, through a series of multisensory experiences. Extending this monologue of an insect’s life is the landscape design by atelier le balto, that not only places insects in their natural habitat but also provides humans an opportunity to reconnect with nature. At the conclusion of the journey is a feeling of having experienced a story, rather than having navigated a series of spaces.
Name: Metamorphosis of the Insectarium
Location: 4581 Rue Sherbrooke Est, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H1X 2B2
Surface Area: 3600 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Client: Espace pour la vie, Montréal
Team of professionals: Kuehn Malvezzi / Pelletier De Fontenay / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes in consortium
Concept architects and museology: Kuehn Malvezzi, Berlin
Concept architects: Pelletier de Fontenay, Montreal
Concept architects + construction supervision: Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes, Montreal
Landscape architects: atelier le balto, Berlin
Structural Engineers: NCK, Montreal
Sustainable Development Advisor (LEED): CIMA+, Montreal
Indoor and outdoor signage: Kuehn Malvezzi with Double Standards, Berlin
Execution and site supervision for museology: La bande à Paul, Montreal
Special consultant for greenhouses: Capital Greenhouse, Thetford Mines
General Contractor: KF Construction Inc., Laval
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