Biodome Science Museum
Rami Bebawi, Tudor Radulescu
NEUF Architect(e)s, Bouthillette Parizeau inc., NCK inc.
Space for Life / City of Montreal
KANVA began by studying the tremendous complexity of the building, a living entity comprised of ecosystems and intricate machinery that is critical to supporting life. They designed with a global strategy that required coordination of numerous delicate micro interventions. KANVA targeted spaces that could be transformed in ways that would valorize the building’s architectural heritage. By carving a new core and gutting the existing entrance ceiling, they opened the space skyward to the building’s extraordinary roof, composed of skylights providing an abundance of natural light. KANVA parametrically designed a living skin, an emblematic feature that could wrap around the ecosystems, and serve as a guiding accompaniment to visitors. With exceptional structural engineering, the biophilic skin harmoniously interacts with the skylights above and elicits a sense of calm. Conceptually, KANVA focused its attention on soliciting senses. The firm transformed the existing linear path of discovery into a dynamic experience. The entry tunnel features a subtle floor incline, intended to slow movement through a compressed white passage, and to void the mind for fresh sensory input. Once in the central core, slits in the living skin, called eco-transits, lead visitors to explore the Biodome’s five ecosystems. The Subpolar ice tunnel is an immersive architectural feature designed with permanent ice formation powered by excess geothermal energy. Vertically, the transformation added a new level above the ecosystems, accessible via walkways. The mezzanine serves as a technical floor, with interactive educational exhibits offering insight into the elaborate machinery required to maintain the facility’s delicate ecosystems.
Housed in the former Velodrome, constructed for the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, the Biodome opened in 1992 and is a jewel in the crown of a consortium of facilities that collectively account for the most visited museum spaces in Canada. In 2014, Space for Life - the body charged with overseeing operations of the Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium, and Botanical Garden -- launched an international competition to revitalize the Biodome’s interior as part of a city-wide renewal plan to celebrate Montreal’s 375th birthday. After winning an international architectural competition in 2014, KANVA was commissioned for the $25 million project by Space for Life. The mandate was to enhance the immersive experience between visitors and the museum’s distinct ecosystems, including Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Labrador Coast, housing more than 250,000 animals and 500 plant species. The firm was also asked to restore dignity to the heritage building, transform the building’s public spaces and paths of exploration, introduce intuitive wayfinding and promote an educational experience that would continue to establish the Biodome as one of the most important museums in the country. In doing so, KANVA designed a sensorial experience that proudly embraced the role that the Biodome plays in sensitizing humans to the intricacies of natural environments, particularly in the current context of climate change and the importance of understanding its effects. The architecture, conceived for both humans and other living species, became a choreographed sequence of moments that inspires responsibility towards the environment.
The Biodome demonstrates the responsibility of a public institution to be both a social and environmental actor. The interdisciplinary project acts as both an urban and natural ecosystem that recognizes current realities. Through KANVA’s philosophy of the "heart, head, hand", the project succeeds in its mission of engaging the public with the environment. The “heart” is identified as the emotional connection promoted by the experience of the five ecosystems. The firm's sensorial approach and creation of a sentient architecture fosters a mindfulness for natural habitats and the protection of other living species. The “head” provides an intellectual understanding to visitors. The new mezzanine offers information on the preservation of the Biodome's natural habitats and species, fulfilling the Biodome's responsibility as a science museum. Finally, the “hand” is the means by which the museum reinforces messages of sustainability. As visitors exit the Biodome, a narrow slit in the living skin leads them to a message written in large letters: a final environmental call to action. It reads: "human beings and the natural world are on a collision course." The Biodome is a role model for future environmental institutions, given its unique program and sensitive management of both materials and building systems. For the team, it was an inspirational experience that serves as an example for better addressing environmental awareness in architecture in the future. Since its re-opening, the Biodome has received multiple recognitions and hosted visitors, tours and educational activities, bringing the project’s goals and messages to life.