Urban Puzzle in Montréal: Designing the CHUM Research Centre

Photo courtesy of Stéphane Groleau

By Odile Hénault
How do you squeeze a mega-hospital—three already large institutions merged into one—into the heart of a city such as Montréal? To make matters more complicated, it is on a tight site, literally at the door of one of the continent’s most exquisite low-scale historical quarters. How do you take Québec’s largest university hospital, providing ultra-specialized care in up to 35 medical disciplines, and fit it within walking distance from a major festival area, which causes entire city blocks to be closed off to vehicular traffic during a good part of the summer? Additionally, an eight-lane half sunken expressway and a major subway line have to be taken into account as they run right underneath Phase I of this whole project. Is there any room left for an architectural statement within this context?

The Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CRCHUM), or Montréal University Hospital Centre’s Research Centre, was no easy challenge for the architects, particularly since they also had to work within the constraints of a public-private partnership (P3) with several levels of government and a major university involved in the process. Phase 1, the Research Centre itself, opened its doors in September 2013. The second phase, the actual hospital complex, is slated to be finished by 2016, while the third and final phase, involving the demolition of an existing hospital on the northernmost part of the site, will be done last.

Brief historical background
For a project such as this, it is important to know some of the backstory. The concept of the overall CHUM—beyond the Research Centre that is the focus for this article—was created in 1995 to rationalize the operations of three institutions:

  • Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, the city’s oldest hospital;
  • Hôpital Notre-Dame; and
  • Hôpital St-Luc.

From the outset, it was intended the CHUM become a single-site institution. The difficulties entailed in planning such a mega-project, however, meant innumerable delays, due in part to the periodical changing of the guard at the provincial level.

In 1999, former premier Pauline Marois—then the province’s health minister—chose a site located roughly 4 km (2.5 mi) north of the CHUM’s home, a track of land occupied by a bus depot. It had the advantage of being away from downtown traffic and relatively close to the University of Montréal. Four years later, in 2003, Liberal Jean Charest’s newly formed government questioned the Parti Québécois’s (PQ’s) decision and appointed a commission, led by Daniel Johnson and Brian Mulroney, to look at potential sites and come up with recommendations.

The commission’s report identified a new location—now the definitive site—as the best possible, in close proximity with the Ville-Marie Expressway and the Hôpital St-Luc. This recommendation led to a new round of controversy, which involved yet another former premier, PQ’s Lucien Bouchard, and yet another location, close to the university’s Outremont campus.

Finally, on March 24, 2005, the Liberals called the discussions off and—for better or for worse—chose to go ahead with the site identified in the first place by the commission they had appointed. During the same period, the government also committed to a P3 process rather than to more traditional methods.

As mentioned, the project was divided in three phases:

  • Phase I (2013)—the now open 71,000-m2 (764,238-sf) CHUM’s Research Centre, home to the research, teaching, and administrative activities of the adjacent university teaching hospital;
  • Phase 2 (2016)—the new 772-bed hospital; and
  • Phase 3 (2020)—the last adjacent buildings (following the Hôpital St-Luc’s demolition, planned for 2017).

Work began in earnest on the CRCHUM in 2008, after years of studies by various teams of consultants. The architectural team comprised:

  • NFOE et associés architectes;
  • Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes;
  • Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et Associés Architectes;
  • Lemay et Associés; and
  • Parkin Architectes.

NIPpaysage, architectes paysagistes, were the appointed landscape architects.

A porte cochère leading to the loading dock area is subtly inserted in the St. Antoine façade of the Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CRCHUM) six-storey volume. Photo courtesy Stéphane Groleau

The CRCHUM program
Located on the southernmost part of the entire site, between St-Antoine Street to the south and Viger Street to the north, CRCHUM occupies the most strategic location, symbolically speaking, but also the most difficult, given the complexity of the existing infrastructure. The site straddles a subway line and the Ville-Marie Expressway—a long gash in the city fabric, partly buried under the business centre of Montréal, emerging at ground level just east of the site.

Built in the early 1960s, the expressway spared the oldest part of the city from total eradication, but it created what is still perceived as a major wound to the urban fabric, isolating Old Montréal from the more contemporary city to the north.

The CHUM Research Centre was therefore seen as a transitional structure. In architectural terms, the project had to defer to its neighbouring buildings and attempt not to dwarf them. To achieve this, the architects divided the CRCHUM into two distinct volumes linked by an aerial passage. This spatial organization made it possible to avoid building over the expressway—a venture that promised to be both complex and costly. The research centre is now home to 1300 people, including technical and administrative staff as well as some 400 scientists and 356 students.

The six-storey St. Antoine tower houses executive management and administrative services, the epidemiological research group, and the hospital daycare. While the Viger and St. Antoine buildings are linked at the second level, the deck above the expressway is used as the shipping and receiving yard for the complex.

The Viger Tower, built over the subway line, integrates below-grade connections from the neighbouring metro station to the CRCHUM and to the future CHUM. The ground floor includes:

  • the main lobby;
  • clinical research reception and waiting areas;
  • pharmacy;
  • building management and security; and
  • shipping and receiving facilities.

The basement level accommodates employee facilities, research support functions, and a cyclotron.

On the second and third floors, one finds the integrated teaching and training centre for both staff and students with its 40 small group learning rooms, 50- and 100-seat lecture rooms, and multiple specialized training and interdisciplinary simulation laboratories.

Centralized clinical research activities occupy the fourth floor and parts of the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors. Facilities include ambulatory clinic areas, research offices, a minor procedure suite and observation unit, as well as specialized clinical laboratories. The fifth floor also houses research administrative offices, an amphitheatre, and learning commons. The balance of the sixth and seventh floors is occupied by mechanical and electrical services.

Floors 8 through 11 accommodate the primary research activities of CRHCUM, including basic research labs, support spaces, and offices. The 12th floor is home to specialized core labs, including a CL-3 biocontainment laboratory suite, cellular imaging and biomonitoring laboratories, and its genomics, transcriptomics, metabomics, proteomics (GTMP) platform. The CRCHUM’s central glass-wash facility is also located at that level. The 13th and 14th floors house the research centre’s large- and small-animal vivariums, animal modelling, and animal imaging platforms, as well as a CL-3 biocontainment animal housing suite. The 15th floor and mezzanine are occupied by primary mechanical and electrical services.

The overall project can be visualized in this perspective drawing showing Phase 1 of the project which is now complete. Image courtesy CannonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s

Circulation for the Research Centre
Circulation was a major issue in this project. The challenge involved how to co-ordinate the movements of researchers (from the entry level to their sterile labs), students, and animals brought to the vivarium on the top floors of the Viger Tower, while still allowing the general public access to the lower floors of both buildings. Equally at stake was the vehicular traffic. Lack of space meant the area above the expressway had to be converted to accommodate CRCHUM’s complex delivery and removal needs. Accessible from a porte cochère on St-Antoine St., this loading dock is isolated from the rest of the site by an architectural fence.

Once inside the premises, researchers, students, patients, medical staff, and the public needed clear orientation devices. Circulation elements—vertical as well as horizontal—became a significant component of the architectural parti. The main entrance, from the street, from the subway below, and from the tunnel that will eventually link the CRCHUM to the Montréal University Hospital Centre, is located in the Viger Tower. On arrival in the main hall, users and visitors are directed to the elevator banks, or to grand stairs, that take them up to the second level from where they can reach the St. Antoine building via the aerial bridge.

Up the Viger Tower, a double-height meeting space for the use of students and researchers was purposely kept open to help situate them in the complex and in the city. In close proximity with a 187-seat auditorium, this ‘agora’ forms the central node of the Viger Tower separating the fundamental research floors from the second to fourth levels, where training is provided.

Issues of transparency
Advanced research performed in rooms requiring little or no natural light meant windowless façades—a difficult proposition in an urban environment where a feeling of openness and transparency is usually the norm. To offset the consequences deriving from this situation, the architects decided to take all functions without light restriction and concentrate them closest to the ground. The 15-storey volume of the Viger Tower was also broken along an east-west axis to soften its visual impact. Clearly visible are the well-lit offices located north of the tower while the laboratories (along the east, south, and west façades) are less ‘permeable’ to natural light.

A gigantic mural by Alain Paiement is one of the CRCHUM’s four major works of art commissioned to Québec artists thanks to the province’s Arts and Architecture Integration Policy.The St. Antoine building façades are entirely treated as curtain walls—an effort to visually associate the six-storey volume with the future hospital as well as with the Research Centre. On the other hand, for large sections of Viger Tower’s east, south, and west façades, metal panels had to be resorted to given budgetary constraints. Photo courtesy Stéphane Groleau

Members of the public are welcome on the lower floors of the two buildings where they are given a chance to contemplate three large murals and one major sculpture, all by well-known Québec artists. This unique opportunity is made possible thanks to the province’s mandatory “Arts and Architecture Integration Policy” whereby approximately one per cent of any public building’s budget must be dedicated to one or several works of art.

Façade treatment
The architects used pre-painted aluminum panels, which were folded in a seemingly random way to create constantly changing patterns throughout the day. The colour is reminiscent of Old Montréal’s metallic roofs, beautifully worn by time. The placement of windows within the more opaque walls followed a subtle graphic sequence, which was inspired by the research on the genetic code taking place within.

Some still question the wisdom of the decision that led the 2005 provincial government to locate the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal on a site where its visual impact on Old Montréal and on the more contemporary city will be major. However, once it became clear there was no turning back, the architects had to adapt to this complex situation and come up with answers that would satisfy not only the CHUM and CRCHUM users, but also the citizens of Montréal.

One has to recognize the major efforts made by the numerous teams of professionals involved in Phase 1 of the project—those who had to set the tone for the entire CHUM project.

Odile Henault oct 2014Odile Hénault was trained as an architect in Halifax. After creating and single-handedly producing the architecture magazine Section a, from 1983 to 1986, she had a multifaceted career during which she worked as a critic, editor, curator, teacher, and professional advisor. She occasionally collaborates with The Canadian Architect. Hénault can be reached at odile_henault@hotmail.com.

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