Saint-Michel North Housing
Saia Barbarese Topouzanov Architectes (SBTA inc.)
Dino Barbarese, Vladimir Topouzanov
Geneviève Deguire, Christopher Dubé, Hugo Duguay, Joël Hébert, Maxime Hurtubise, Yvan Marion, Louis-Guillaume Paquet, Karl Robert, Flavia Socol, Yvon Théorêt, Sophie Trépanier-Laplante
The schemes studied shared the objective of preserving the high-density, low-height scale of the original project. The chosen remodeling scheme, however, kept the memory of the place, not only by preserving most of the original buildings (21 over 27), but also by turning the removed buildings footprints into public “piazzetta” and by keeping the oblique pathways that permeated the original plan. As social housing comes with a social cohesion dimension, the shared street acts as a backbone for the pathways, the gardens and the entire shared landscape which constituted strong collective components of the original plan. It also mends the site to the urban fabric at a larger scale. The community organizations which came to inhabit the site throughout the years reinforced that social dimension: the scheme included them and signaled their presence.
A second major objective was to instill a sense of belonging and identity for the residents, to the site as well as to their “homes”. Hence the shades on brick blending identify and singularize the space behind and become tectonic. The progression of the colors from light to dark is inverted on either side of the street: it makes each side distinct while creating a dynamic visual reference. Combined with the sculptural staircases, the colored brick facades act as a response to counter subsidized housing stigma of unglamorous architecture.
A third objective was to go beyond OMHM’s guidelines for durable architecture. Fourthly, the project was to be managed to enable all families to return to their “homes”.
Habitations Saint-Michel Nord (HSMN), located northeast of downtown Montreal, was built shortly after the city’s social housing agency, the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM) came into existence. From 1969 to 1979, the OMHM built more than 8,000 housing units for underprivileged families.
Built in 1972, the 27-building, 182-housing units complex HSMN had many interesting features. It provided tenants with a large variety of layouts, including maisonette-like two-storey apartments, corner units, and even some through-units—a type still considered a luxury by developers today.
The project also included an underground garage, which extended below the buildings and made it possible to create landscaped grounds, rather than paving over the site for parking.
By 2015, however, the project was approaching the end of its useful life. Some of its 182 units were in such poor repair that they could no longer be occupied. The inner courtyards, which may have looked charming on architectural renderings, had gradually become enclaves for illicit activities, and a no-go zone for many residents. The OMHM was forced to take action and commissioned Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architects (SBTA) to study several options, including demolition. The firm’s scheme to rehabilitate and remodel the project was the chosen solution.
Key to the site’s remodeling was the introduction of a central shared street, designed along the principles of the Dutch woonerf. The long city block was essentially split down the middle, creating connections between the residents and the surrounding community and increasing the safety of the area. The new street lengthens the 25th avenue to connect to René-Goupil Park, thus mending the formerly inner-oriented block in the urban fabric.
The shared street includes pedestrian and vehicle zones with permeable pavement, while the landscaping plan features rainwater retention and bio-retention basins. Numerous trees on the site were protected. The site is equipped with an innovative waste and recycling management system.
Six of the original 27 buildings were demolished to make room for this new corridor. To make up for the units lost in the demolition process, an extra floor to eight existing two-storey buildings was added.
The apartments were thoroughly refreshed and fitted with taller windows. Interior layouts were modified, most units now being crossing apartments.
Previous services—including a youth centre, a multipurpose hall, a community restaurant and a daycare—were relocated to more closely connect with Robert Boulevard and the park. These amenities are now open to the entire neighbourhood.
Inspired by the work of French-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, the architects chose four earth-toned brick colours, ranging from buff to burgundy for the treatment of the façades. The metal balconies and sculptural spiral stairs were painted accordingly, giving a festive mood to the project.