By Phil Roberts…
We’re all acquainted with the cliché of young North Americans backpacking through Europe, getting a sense of themselves and the world around them. For architects Louis Thellend and Lisa-Marie Fortin, their European period of discovery didn’t come by socializing in hostels, but through participating in architectural competitions. Those competitions have been an inspiration for the work of Montréal-based Thellend Fortin Architectes ever since.
“Architectural competitions in Europe allowed us to explore new forms of design techniques,” explains Lisa-Marie. The professional learning experience challenged them in ways that competitions in Canada didn’t and it caused them to reflect more profoundly and meticulously on their work. The competitions in which they participated in Spain were architectural interventions of a variety of scales, giving them a wide range of experience, and deepening their knowledge of how projects are designed.
International projects such as their design concept for the headquarters of one of Spain’s largest banks in Badajos, and the aerospace campus for a research university in Toulouse, France, are two competitions the practice highly regards as most influential in their present work. Both projects were designed in 2007 in collaboration with Estudio Lamela of Madrid, allowing Lisa-Marie and Louis to acquire a certain credibility in the North American market.
Lisa-Marie says the insight gained from those competitions caused them to rethink how they would run an architectural practice. “In terms of how our studio has developed, we have worked on refining our thinking in line with our experiences in Spain: the relationship between interior spaces, the exterior environment, control of natural light, context, and topography.” Not that these elements weren’t important before, but they started to see them in new perspectives.
The practice primarily does residential work, but have participated in some small-scale commercial and institutional projects. Lisa-Marie and Louis work alone with no employees, and therefore develop each project from initial sketch right through until substantial completion. “For this reason, we only accept a small number of projects every year so that we can give proper treatment to each.”
One project which showcases what they learned from Spain is the Residence Mentana, completed in 2013 in Montreal. This project consists of a renovation and enlargement of a duplex constructed in the early 1900s in the heart of Plateau Mont-Royal. The objective was to transform the poorly lit and narrow spaces of the existing apartments into large open spaces showered with natural light.
The mix of cedar ceilings, hardwood flooring and fixed furnishings in the kitchen, create a harmonious ensemble just like the projects they learned from in Spain. The circulation spaces are concentrated at the centre of the residence outlined by a long white guardrail which swoops around like a ribbon. Overhead, a string of skylights reveals the sky.
Another such project is Le Phénix in the Eastern Townships completed in 2013. Le Phénix is an enlargement of a farm house constructed in 1892. Each room offers a panoramic view of the rolling landscape.
The addition respects the existing portion, and was constructed just below the soffit of the existing structure, in a horizontal orientation. The façade of the addition is composed of vertical lattices of whitened wood, installed horizontally, and derived from an adjacent old residence.
The new interior spaces were developed with the intention of unifying the room by dressing them with a texture that embodied the spirit of the landscape. The structural concept worked with that vernacular inspiration with the use of hemlock roof members and wood decking. By virtue of its tectonics, the enlargement echoes the past, reminiscent of the barns which decorate the rural landscape of Quebec.
Drawing from lessons learnt from places like Badajos, Toulouse, Zaragoza and Madrid, Thellend Fortin Architectes approach their projects in Quebec with European sensitivity while respecting local proclivity. It’s an ability to find connections between local and global desires, without one detracting from the other.
Phil Roberts is the creative director of sixty7 Architecture Road.