As students flocked to McGill’s campuses in September, reinjecting them with life for the first time in 18 months, another set of empty buildings received some rare human visitors: the former site of the Royal Victoria Hospital, mostly vacant since the hospital relocated to the MUHC Glen site in 2015.
Its long-closed doors were opened last fall to allow journalists from La Presse and The Montreal Gazette in for a glimpse of the future from Pierre Major, executive director of the New Vic Project.
“It’s so quiet inside,” says Major. “It’s clear that it needs a new life and new occupants, so that these buildings can become vibrant again.”
Photos that appeared in the two publications showed the once-busy halls layered with debris – but also offered a view of what is to come, as McGill transforms a section of the site (including the iconic 19th-century pavilions facing Pine Avenue) into the New Vic: a state-of-the-art hub for teaching and research devoted to sustainability and public policy.
“Each of these themes is incredibly important to the future of our world, and together they become even more powerful,” explains Bruce Lennox, academic lead of the New Vic Project and dean of the Faculty of Science.
“By co-locating sustainability science and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at the New Vic, we will bring policy expertise into direct conversation with sustainability science. This means that sustainability researchers will gain perspective on how their discoveries can best be implemented in line with the realities of government and society, while future policymakers will be trained with sustainability as a principal lens of their work.
“The design concept for the New Vic will break down the traditional barriers between disciplinary departments and their associated ways of thinking,” explains Lennox. “Critically, by bringing sustainability together with public policy, we have the ability to bridge a similar gap that can exist between scientific discovery and the world beyond the academy.”
An opportunity to work differently
“What’s going to be going on in the New Vic is really exciting,” agrees Major. “And it’s not just the fact that it’s going to focus on sustainability and public policy – it’s also the opportunity to work differently. This site will make this easier for people to work across disciplines, by breaking down the silos that can exist in more conventional settings.”
Audrey Moores, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, has experience with conventional academic settings. She laughs as she recalls her own doctoral work in a building so segmented, “It was shaped like a comb: every little tooth was a long corridor with everybody doing the same thing, and you needed to walk a long time to get to the main building before you could reach another tooth of the comb.” As a result, she says, it was very hard to meet anyone outside the department if there wasn’t already a connection.
So, does solving this problem only involve better workspace design? No, says Moores, but it will certainly help – and McGill has made headway in making sure the “human architecture” will be there as well.
Moores points to her work with the interdisciplinary McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI), where she co-leads a research theme on Creating Sustainable Materials, as an example of McGill’s success to date.
Through the MSSI’s transdisciplinary model, she has seen firsthand that novel frameworks can catalyze productive collaborations that transcend traditional academic boundaries. Her group brings together investigators and students from the areas of chemical and materials engineering, pharmacology, nanoscience, environmental science, civil engineering, and food science and agricultural chemistry, among others.
“Our team has been developing new approaches to understanding the toxicity of nanoparticles; we have developed new materials for energy applications; we have investigated the toxicity of paint components,” she explains. “In each of these projects, the key was the ability for us to learn how to work across multiple Faculties.”
This type of transdisciplinary collaboration also holds benefits for students. “The students get an enhanced experience,” says Moores. “They get exposed to multiple disciplines and they get a much better perspective in systems thinking: trying to think systems as opposed to just small, divided problems.”
It’s a far cry from the isolating structures and modes of work Moores remembers from her own student days. “This culture of collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and exposure to the unknown – it is absolutely critical at this stage of their development to become true citizens of the future.”
As a green chemist, Moores explores methods to reduce the ecological and health impacts of the chemical industry; her work on transforming shrimp shell waste into biodegradable plastics has received national attention. She emphasizes that McGill has strength in many areas of sustainability science and policy, and that research happening across multiple units and faculties will find a concrete realization in the New Vic.
“I think it’s great that McGill has this vision to rally researchers around the concept of sustainability, because this is the biggest challenge that we all have to face as a society now and in the coming years,” says Moores. “And if we want to meet the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, it’s going to take this kind of a networked approach.
“It takes an effort at this scale if you want to have an impact on a challenge of this magnitude,” she adds.
Getting there will take time. The Quebec government approved the project’s dossier d’opportunité in spring 2021; if all goes to plan, the grand opening is projected for 2028.
State-of-the art buildings and plenty of green space
By the time the doors to the New Vic officially open, much will have changed. The forecourt parking lot will be transformed into a sweeping green park area and a state-of-the-art event space and large classroom cluster; impassably dense 1950s construction behind the heritage wings will have been replaced with fluid, accessible new design; and throughout, rigidly delineated areas will have been exchanged with open and transparent spaces for working and gathering.
The architectural treatment of the buildings themselves will align with the work being done within: meeting WELL and LEED Gold standards, and using geothermal wells for a significant proportion of the complex’s heating, the New Vic will follow sustainable construction methods closely, creating a collider for sustainability science with green principles hardcoded into its structure. Following an international search, Diamond Schmitt / Lemay Michaud Architects was selected as the principal for the delivery of architectural services.
For Montrealers, Lennox says one sight may be especially striking: “Standing on Pine Avenue, you’ll actually be able to see something that has been hidden for 70 years: Mount Royal.”
Lennox explains that the towering 1950s additions to the RVH behind the original 19th-century pavilions will be replaced with lower-profile new construction, restoring sightlines to the mountain, as part of the project’s goal of restoring the relationship between the natural landscape and the city.
The redesigned site will also create new access and throughways for the public, he says. While the original site had been much more fluid, significant infilling of the RVH site in the postwar years led to the site becoming impassable to pedestrians. That will change, thanks to paths integrated into the New Vic, and a new public access staircase through the site, which will lead to green roofs overlooking the city, and on to Mount Royal.
“In many ways, the project is returning the mountain to Montreal, and to Montrealers,” says Lennox.
For all this change, however, much will remain, having undergone a thorough restoration that project leaders believe will stand as a model for how to do heritage preservation work worldwide. And the New Vic’s teaching and research mission will honour the original intent as a site of healing. To borrow a phrase that would have been familiar to its original architects, collaborative healing will remain the genius loci – the animating spirit of the place.
“These buildings have always been there to take care of people, and to heal people,” says Major. “Right now, climate change is having a direct impact on people’s health; the work at this site will help us deal with population health, and individual health, and that’s a direct relationship with what this site has always been about.”
An array of laboratories, hubs and “collision spaces” – work areas designed to promote collaboration – will bring researchers and students together based on the problems their work addresses, rather than simply the departments they belong to. These diverse spaces will be designed to be agile, in order to continue accommodating scientific work in future years, as new technologies and methodologies emerge.
“It’s a beautiful project, and a true Montreal project as well,” says Moores.
There’s no question that the site is steeped in history – and that long history includes the many personal histories of those who have passed through its doors. These connections are shared by generations of Montrealers and people across Quebec; among McGillians, countless nursing and medical trainees and employees who began their careers there went on to help shape healthcare delivery and research, whether at the Vic or further afield.
In decades to come, the New Vic will do the same for sustainability and policy, seeding cohorts of sustainability innovators and policymakers ready to work side-by-side to create a better future for our societies and planet.
Pierre Major relates his own Vic connection: in his early days working at McGill in the 1990s, his first office was in the central historical pavilion of the RVH, looking out over its parking lot. The view will be much different when the New Vic opens; the city beyond ever more modern, but the re-greened forecourt poignantly reminiscent of how it would have looked when the RVH was inaugurated in 1895.
“There are so many people that have personal memories with these sites, with these buildings,” says Major. “I think we have a duty to preserve them, and to preserve this history and that personal attachment that a good majority of Montreal has had with this place, and by transforming them to find new use for them, for the future.
“I think that’s the best way to keep those memories alive.”
All the illustrations and renderings used in this article are for representational purposes only. They are subject to change.