The new Discovery and Visitor’s Center will serve as the main welcome point for visitors arriving at the Îles-de-Boucherville National Park and will also act as a forum in which to showcase Quebec’s network of national parks. This project embraces a philosophy of “discovery” for a unique experience of the built environment that is singular and respectful of its context in the natural surroundings.
Studio Name: Smith Vigeant architects inc.
Design Team: Daniel Smith, Stéphan Vigeant, Anik Malderis, Cindy Neveu
Area: 510 m2
Location: National Park, Boucherville, Québec, Canada
Photography Credits: Adrien Williams
In order to open up access to the site and highlight the promenade leading to the water, the anticipated building volume was deliberately divided into two distinct parts. This fragmented layout creates an open public space between the new volumes as well as framing the central axis of circulation that leads to the channel. A place for interaction, to meet and gather or merely pass through, this busy junction is a hub for both discovery activities as well as outdoor equipment rentals. Animated by pedagogical interventions, the central axis traversing the site also becomes an important aspect of the experience. Its clearly defined route contrasts with the natural context and guide visitors towards the new center.
Surrounding the center are majestic willow trees that sway softly in the breeze, twinkling water is pulled gently past by the current. The natural poetry of the site inspires interventions that are in intimate symbiosis with the landscape. The conceptual objectives are reflected in the harmonious composition of adapted textures and organic shapes that provide creative solutions for integrating the architecture into the natural setting.
The undulated building edges are in harmony with the natural setting and inspire visitors to meander around the built spaces. They follow, traverse, and pass under the curved surfaces to progressively discover the space. The fluid motion of the form is further accentuated by textured veil: a succession of wooden slats overlapping the siding and extending around the entire perimeter. These elements delicately combine to produce a texture that evokes the rugged surface of bark. The cladding also acts as a light filter, producing shadows that dance across the ground in the same way as the foliage of the surrounding willows.
Inside the building, the organic dialogue continues with a channel like recess that leads to the heart of the structure and the centrally located skylight. Illuminated with linear lighting that is in dialogue with the rhythmic exterior cladding, this luminous well brings the large discovery room to life. Due to its incline, this stunning layout also facilitates natural ventilation by directing air up towards the skylight.
From the outside to the inner heart of the project and the unique layout to the choice of materials the architecture of the site is embedded with the essence of nature and demonstrates its great environmental sensibility. Emphasis is placed on the site’s natural attributes by showcasing the flora and the fauna, the vegetation and minerals and the water that streams past.
A national park is, by definition, an area where nature is protected, preserved, and showcased. While large natural settings are generally located far from urban centers, the Îles-de-Boucherville National Park, a group of 5 small islands in the middle of the Saint-Lawrence River, is located only a few kilometres from downtown Montreal. Its convenient location, its surprising flora and fauna as well as the wide range of activities offered assure the park an abundance of visitors seeking to escape their hectic daily schedules. Outdoor enthusiasts who come to discover the natural treasures of this enchanting site can explore the vast network of walking, cycling, and paddling trails, and all of this only a short jaunt from the city.
The architectural project is delicately inserted in an opening between the trees that occupy the site – willows, honey locusts, pines and red maples decorate its perimeter. The limits of architectural intervention were carefully coordinated in order to preserve and feature the existing vegetation, particularly the impressive willows that grace the terrain with their cascading branches.
Poised on the edge of the channel of the Grande Rivière, the new center also enjoys visual access to the water through the wild vegetation of the riverbank while maintaining a distance that respects protection limits and thus minimizes disturbances to the shoreline.
In conforming to the park’s desire to achieve a balance between protection and accessibility of natural areas, the project considered the site as a whole and did not view the building as an isolated element. In a major reconfiguration of the circulation routes, new paths were delineated that are not only functional, but allow visitors to progressively discover the pavilion as they approach. The central axis, a defining element of the site, traverses the grounds combining paths that were previously dispersed in order to minimize impact on ground cover.
360m2 + 150m2 = 510m2
The Discovery and Visitor Center’s main pavilion acts as a welcome point for park visitors. It groups together welcome spaces, a multifunctional discovery room with an integrated thematic exposition, a dining area, a space for boutiques and store, an employee area, storage, and washrooms. Outside, set back from the site’s busy central hub, is a terrace bordered on one side by the cascading greenery of the willows and on the other by a reflection of the landscape in the glass surfaces. The space becomes a reflection of its surroundings, a communion between the natural and built environment.
The accessory pavilion is designed for seasonal use. It offers a service point for visitors and also provides equipment rentals and storage for water sports and cycling. Around its circumference, boat supports are dispersed among the existing trees in order to bring them closer to the water without disturbing the site.
MATERIALS / TEXTURES
This project makes significant use of wood, for both wall coverings and structural elements – this warm natural material adorns most surfaces. The grey exterior forms a stark contrast with the natural and bleached like wood surfaces of the interior, like a dark layer of bark protecting the living heart of a tree.
In addition to the concrete used for the floors, minerals are also employed as wall coverings. The gabion-walls expose a limestone typical of the area, creating a contemporary allusion to the existing masonry buildings on the site.
A large curtain wall allows light to penetrate interior spaces while reflecting the outside landscape. Overlooking the terrace, an expansive surface of continuous glass, sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, reflects the wall of willows facing the building. The extremity of the building becomes a reflection of its environment.
This project is an exemplary model of harmonious integration into the natural environment coupled with high performance design. The functional and technical criteria that guided the project integrated bioclimatic principles to reduce the environmental footprint and preserve the site, elected wood and other low maintenance sustainable materials for construction, and ensured programmatic optimization, fluid circulation, accessibility, and comfort of users.
A strong emphasis was placed on preserving the site by minimizing the impact, protecting the shoreline, redirecting rain water towards planted spaces, and minimizing light pollution.
The bioclimatic design principles enable the structure to benefit from the natural attributes of the site. The careful orientation and positioning of the openings maximize natural light and ventilation. The wooden slat cladding filters the light that pours in through the large glass surface, thus avoiding a surplus of heat. A roof overhang follows the contour of the building and its strategic position provides shade during the summer controlling over heat and shelters against rain. A centrally located skylight opens up the heart of the structure to natural light and ventilation.