Architecture Open Form : The new exterior entry of the Centre de la petite enfance Harmonie, situated in Montreal’s Plateau-MontRoyal borough, responded to the daycare’s need for a wider, safer and more comfortable access from the street for its multiple users. The CPE occupies the two floors and basement of a former duplex that is slightly set back from the sidewalk. The former stairway leading to its entrance was very small and concentrated on one side of its façade, next to the garbage and recycling containers, making it very challenging for children, parents and educators to comfortably make their way in and out of the daycare, especially with strollers. It was not unusual to see a lineup of waiting children and parents extending onto the sidewalk and down the street, which typically has lots of car and bicycle traffic. This hazardous situation has now been corrected; easy, comfortable access to the daycare and the safety of its children were the main goals of the architectural solution.
The urban landscape as a source of inspiration
The urban landscape of the CPR Harmonie was a major source of inspiration for this solution. A study of the exterior stairways and balconies on De La Roche Street revealed the unique formal and architectural characteristics of the building’s streetscape. The distinctive footprint, orientation and form of the stairways imposes a certain rhythm and distinguishes this street from neighboring streets, where the façades are set back further from the sidewalk, allowing space for their straight stairways to be perpendicular to them. De La Roche Street, on the other hand, has a small setback and winding stairways; most are parallel to the sidewalk at the top and then turn so that they end up perpendicular at the base. The bottom step is generally constructed in concrete and serves as a foundation for the stairway, with its metal structure and handrails and wooden treads. The metal handrails vary from one building to the next due to their unique decorative treatment and original colors.
The CPE’s architecture as a source of inspiration
A second source of inspiration for the CPE’s new entry was its unique façade. Clad in rough-hewn stone of irregular shapes and different tones, a treatment that was popular between the 1930s and 1950s, it stands apart from the façades of neighboring buildings, most of which are clad in rectangular units of brick or stone, as was typical at the turn of the 20th century. The unique composition of the CPE’s façade was analyzed using a Voronoi diagram, a mathematical technique applied to the study of complex forms.
The architectural solution
Taking its cue form the neighbouring stairways, the CPE’s new entrance stairway is parallel to its façade and turns to open onto the public domain. Its structure includes a central steel stringer that supports wide treads made of Ductal concrete. This very light structural material allowed the cantilever of the thin treads without risers. It requires little maintenance and thus ensures the stairway’s long-term durability. At grade, a large base in prefabricated concrete supports the structure and offers a secure and generously proportioned meeting and waiting place for the daycare’s multiple users.
The distinctive, colorful, avant-garde design of the stair’s handrail, on the other hand, was inspired by the unique composition and texture of the CPE’s stone façade. Its recyclable steel frame was cut by laser into irregular forms to ensure the exactness of each shape, welded to guarantee its solidity, and then painted with baked enamel to create a durable finish that would last many years. White was chosen not only for its luminosity and capacity to reflect light, but also for its architectural and social symbolism: purity and social utopia.
This steel frame holds in place a series of panels made of iridescent laminated glass, a high-performance, recyclable material that allows both transparence and reflection of its different tints. These tints, inspired by the complex nanostructure of butterfly wings, were created by inserting a colored film between two layers of glass and then heating the assembly under pressure. The irregular forms of the panels, their bumpy texture and their bright colors create a play of light and color that changes with the level of sunlight, the angle of vision and whatever is behind them, offering a joyful, dynamic experience for both CPE-users and passers-by, adults and children alike.
Efficient, high-quality assembly
In order to avoid interrupting the CPE’s services and to continue to ensure the security of its users, the stair, its base and its handrail were prefabricated in a Plateau-Mont-Royal workshop close to the project site and the new entry was assembled on-site over a weekend. This construction method had several advantages: fabrication was carried out in an environment that allowed for the required precision and quality, there was minimal disruption to the daycare’s regular functioning, on-site assembly was efficient, and the financial management of the project was better controlled.
A participatory process
An innovative project such as this could not be realized without the support, ideas and dreams of the client’s stakeholders. Members of the staff, the board of directors and several volunteer parents participated in the design of the new entry’s stair and handrail. From the architects’ first site visit, their open-mindedness, fresh ideas and ongoing input contributed to the success and unique character of what became a functional but refined and playful solution.
Today, the impact of this participatory design process remains evident. The CPE Harmonie’s generously proportioned entry provokes images of colored soap balls floating in the air, shimmering according to the sun’s orientation and the observer’s angle of vision. Many scenarios are possible now: the stairway’s wide steps and generous base allow people to enter and exit the daycare at the same time, strollers to be accommodated, and parents and children to wait in complete security. It is not unusual to see youngsters making faces in front of their reflections in the bumpy, colored glass as they sit safely on the steps and wait for their parents or educators.
In conclusion, the CPE Harmonie’s new entry was inspired not only by its context and itsfaçade but also by the imaginations of its users and the desire to ensure both their security and pleasure. It represents an architectural and urban gesture sparked by an innovative vision that confidently and proudly reflects the social and pedagogic role of the daycare in the physical, emotional, intellectual, social and cultural development of the generation of tomorrow.
Photo Courtesy : Architecture Open Form
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