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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 2

McGill's New Music Building: A Resounding Success

by Laurier Rajotte / October 18, 2005

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An impressive new centre for McGill's faculty of music has risen on the southeast corner of the campus of the prestigious university. The building's innovative design puts architecture to work for cutting-edge recording technology and acoustics, and it is sure to elevate the international reputation of the faculty and Montreal's music community. In 1994, a new building was planned to house the music library, but under the guidance of the dean of music, Don McLean, the project grew quickly into something much more ambitious. "As well as conceiving the library," he says, "we felt there was an obvious need for a large recording space. We had plans for rehearsal rooms big enough for the musicians but not big enough to give us good natural sound quality. Around 1995 there were some major improvements in recording technology – more sensitive microphones, for example – and we were inspired to aim a little higher. We hoped to create a space not just for recording but for research into recording techniques and science; and to do that we had to have a space whose acoustic parameters were completely under our control." In preparation, McLean visited and studied the best sound studios in Hollywood with the goal of building, here in Montreal, a recording studio that could rival or surpass the highest international standards.

A Centre for Multidisciplinary Research

The designers did not shy away from the chance to align several different research fields into a single, ambitious studio plan. Film soundtracks, multimedia applications, music recording, studio technology, sound engineering and even neurosciences have a home in the new space. "Since the faculty already had some dynamic talents in these areas of research, it seemed logicalthat the researchers share a single facility where they could get their hands on the best tools available," stresses McLean. Since musicians naturally gravitate towards the most powerful instruments they can find – think of the organs of Bach, the pianos of Beethoven or the electronic experiments of Varese – it's not hard to convince them that cutting-edge technology is a must. So at the heart of the building project was a strong desire to deepen students' understanding of musical creation, production and transmission – a complete spectrum of the sonic arts. The result is the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (or CIRMMT, pronounced "Kermit"), where students and professors can take advantage of a new recording studio to broaden their research projects.

The Montreal-based firm MDSL Architectes, which used highly innovative techniques, such as the box-within-a-box design that prevents any outside vibrations from affecting the studio's acoustics, carried out construction of the studio. To build this on a grand scale (4,000 square feet of floor space, and a 50-foot ceiling!) was a serious challenge. But the resulting "big box" will fit a symphony orchestra and chorus and allow them to record in perfect isolation.

Cultural Architecture

The new music facility means more than increased space, however. It serves as a great artistic statement in itself. Created by Saucier & Perrotte Architectes, the building is the latest in a series of prize-winning efforts in the cultural domain by this accomplished firm. They also worked on the faculty of architecture and design at the University of Montreal, the Cinémathèque québécoise, the Théâtre d'aujourd'hui, the Théâtre du Rideau Vert and Usine C. Gilles Saucier, the man behind the creative concept, emphasizes, "McGill was very brave in devoting the site to the music school when they could easily have chosen to erect a profitable office building instead. The importance of art in university life is made wonderfully clear as you approach from the east – it's the first building you see, and it imposes itself proudly against Sherbrooke Street, so it works like a keystone for the whole campus structure. In terms of urban planning, we see it as a gateway from one world to another, with music leading the way." Although profoundly inspired by the musical theme of the project, Saucier wished to avoid any facile references to music. He hoped instead to, as he says, "suggest the influence of music, with the building formed along a rectilinear plan for both the interior and the facade, but a more lyrical sense of movement in the staircase that slopes through the interior and finishes with a curl at the library. Just as a melodic phrase advances through the regular tempo of a bar, we can see it as a lyrical flourish inside a fairly linear system."

On the strength of his many accomplishments in the academic domain, Saucier evidently treats students as a special kind of customer. "You have to be sure of efficiency and durability when you're building for a school," he says. "The infrastructure has to stand up to a great deal of wear-and-tear for a long period of time. And you can tell right away if the students react badly to a space – there's no regular pattern or harmony. All those windowless bunkers from the '70s were a mistake, really. There's a way to build architecture that is efficient but also interesting and stimulating for students."

Architecture and Community

Given such a marvellous site and an ambitious cultural mandate, Saucier & Perrotte chose to design a building whose function and theme would be community. A more idyllic project might have included leafy surroundings on the slopes of Mount Royal, but the urban genius of the layout is immediately clear once you emerge (escape?) from the bustling clamour of the street into this oasisof calm where music is celebrated as the greatest focus of human activity. "The role of the audience is just as crucial to that celebration," Saucier believes. "Look at the great staircase Garnier designed for the Paris Opera: it allows the spectators to be seen, and to see each other. It helps turn an event into a community. If architecture didn't have this role to play, we would just listen to music at home – with our iPods – and forget about encountering each other in a public space through art." As any visitors will certainly attest, the new centre of McGill's Faculty of Music meets this profound need for musical communion in resoundingly accomplished style.

[Translation: Tim Brierley]

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