Experiencing construction in a whole new way

by Jennifer Nault

Few words are more likely to cause a Montrealer to start grinding her teeth than “construction.” The mess. The disruption. The detours.

The award-winning architectural firm KANVA believes it has a plan that won’t just help alleviate the hassles associated with major construction projects, it will help city residents see them in a new light.

“Construction is a performance; it’s spectacular. What we’re celebrating is the performance of the roadwork happening in this city and embracing it as a necessary – even a desirable – part of urban life,” says KANVA co-founder Rami Bebawi, BSc(Arch)’99, MArch’01. “We can’t prevent it; we can adapt to it and live with it as part of the performance.”

The two McGill architectural graduates who co-founded KANVA
 hope that IMAGO might inspire Montrealers to look at major
construction projects in a different light
(Image: KANVA)

The specific construction project that he has in mind will begin in 2018 on Montreal’s major downtown artery – St. Catherine Street. The city’s desire to hide the “dirty work” involved in replacing antiquated water and sewer pipes has opened the door for KANVA to offer a unique solution – IMAGO, a gigantic inflatable tunnel with transparent windowpanes crisscrossed by bulging marshmallow frames, crawling caterpillar-like along the street.

The organically inspired structure is designed to discourage local foot traffic from leaching over to adjacent commercial districts during the four years of infrastructure work that will be taking place on St. Catherine. Bebawi imagines IMAGO as something akin to a city attraction in its own right. “It could become a recognizable icon.”

KANVA has experience when it comes to eye-catching public installations. Entre les rangs, a collaboration with musician Patrick Watson and others, won a Prix d’Excellence from the Ordre des architectes du Québec for its gently glowing evocation of Quebec wheat fields as part of the Quartier des Spectacles’ annual Luminothérapie competition. The firm has also won awards for its work downtown on Frank & Oak’s flagship store and the Edison Residence for students.

In September, Bebawi and KANVA co-founder Tudor Radulescu, BSc(Arch)’98, MArch’01 (the KANVA partners were study buddies at McGill), received word that IMAGO was getting the green light from the city. The project is now in its second phase, which involves thinking through the details, sourcing the materials, and planning the logistics.

“Right now, we’re moving from concept to execution. It’s still early. There are some great empty labs and warehouses we’re looking at – places where airplane engines were built back in the seventies – perfect spaces for testing and simulation,” says Radulescu.

Like other KANVA concepts, IMAGO references biomorphism (design that is reminiscent of natural organisms), and is mobile, adjustable, and flexible. “It mimics nature; the top of it is open and permeable, and yet it also provides some good protection from the sun, snow, rain,” says Bebawi. “There is a constant stream of air flowing in, keeping it filled to a predetermined pressure – which can be adjusted. We designed it so that the entire structure can shift along with the construction.”

KANVA has been consulting local historians for historically pertinent imagery, which will be “etched” onto the “windows” to enshrine and merge past/present/future representations of St-Catherine.

“This is really about transformation,” says Bebawi. “The city is always changing and we must also play the game.”

The pergola aims to strikes a balance between grandeur and pragmatism, facilitating foot traffic while encasing – and virtually showcasing – the everyday industry of construction.

IMAGO is estimated to cost $3.8 million. According to Bebawi, every dollar spent is likely to save $1.50. The inflatable pergola is a preventative measure: “Just look at what’s happening right now,” says Bebawi, referring to Prince Arthur Street’s current revitalization. “One-quarter of those shops are now vacant.” According to merchants, business in that zone is down by at least 60 per cent since August.

“Our intention is to give magic to the city,” says Bebawi.

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