April 1, 2009

Montrose Cultural Centre

The unforgettable landscape of northern Alberta is etched into the design of Grande Prairie’s Montrose Cultural Centre, the new home of the Grande Prairie Public Library and the Prairie Art Gallery. At a cost of $29 million, the facility currently covers 36,900 square feet on its main level and 14,176 square feet on the second floor. Construction began in May 2007 and was completed in May 2009.

Keeping costs low was a priority for the project team, but you’d never guess that looking at this spectacular facility.
“We really appreciate the way it’s designed, it has lots of angles and light,” says Lois Harper, manager of the city of Grande Prairie’s Department of Culture and Sport Development.

“They have given us a lot of license, and a lot of trust,” says Martin Baron of Toronto-based Teeple Architects Inc. His firm worked with Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd. to create this one-of-a-kind public building.

“The facility reflects a growing trend rooted in the concept of ‘convergence’. Bringing the art gallery and the library together under one roof makes sense not only economically, but culturally,” says Bill Chomik, principal, Kasian. “A larger community forum is created with the possibility of holding events that will draw upon users of both facility while creating a focal point for activities in the city.”

Sloping windows provide shade in summer and catch winter light. “Light is extremely low in winter, with sunsets as early at 4:30,” says Baron. Extensive glazing with light-diffusing insulated Okalux glass helps meet the LEED Silver standard. “Clerestory glazing normally sucks energy, but not in the case. It is triple-glazed, argon-filled, double Low-E glazing,” says Baron.

Light-coloured paint inside the four-by-four trusses that hold up the building evokes changing season. Warm autumn colours contrast with the vibrant summer greens on the east. This vibrant interior light contrasts with the dark brick and zinc exterior. Curtain wall glass, metal roof cladding and masonry create a sleek, modern exterior.

The Central Hall’s ceramic tile floors complement the collection area’s grey carpet tiles and low pile carpet in the office area. Other interior materials include drywall, precast concrete around the fireplace, exposed steel stairs, aluminum railings with glass panels and Douglas fir door frames and doors. “We exposed a lot of Douglas fir to honour the region’s economic past prior to the oil and gas industry,” says Baron.

Perhaps the most spectacular design feature is found on the second floor in the children’s library. Two colourful three-sided glass-clad rooms, which house play areas, extend out from the library. A giant ink jet printer has etched digital images of prairie grass on glass panels. Sealed between panels, these abstract images send brightly coloured light through the children’s library and act as a distinctive architectural glass feature on the exterior. Following the seasonal theme, one play area features blue-green summer tones; the other boasts autumn and yellow and orange.

Strong horizontal lines on the building’s south side create a finite scale that fits with the horizontal prairie skyline.
The building’s mechanical system uses LEED friendly displacement ventilation that allows fresh air to enter the building at its lower level, rise naturally, and exit at the highest level. “You don’t need to supply nearly as much air, so the energy used by the fans is much less,” says Baron.

Low-flow toilets and self-irrigated landscaping are also incorporated into the plan. During construction, Wright Construction Western Inc. met the challenge of on-site waste and erosion control. Another challenge for the construction crews was juggling concrete work for the parkade with freezing winter weather. “The amount of concrete work required for the underground parkade meant a push to avoid having to hoard in the winter.  It also meant steel erection could not start until the winter months,” says Chris Doka project manager for Wright Construction Western Inc.

His team enjoyed the challenge of bringing the design to life. “There were spaces that no one could know exactly what they would look like before the building was constructed. That made it hard to design systems like sprinklers, ductwork and lighting, but the challenges also gave us input into small design elements,” says Doka.

“The children’s collection on the second floor floats over the first floor,” says Laurie Harrison, Director, Grande Prairie Public Library. The plan also solved the library’s chronic mobility and parking space dilemmas by adding underground parking and two wheelchair accessible elevators. She adds that the 5,000-square-foot central hall allows patrons to meet friends, study, or sip coffee from the coffee shop.

“We have to give credit to the previous management of the gallery, led by Trenton Perrott. When I arrived in October 2006, the Centre had been largely planned,” says Robert Steven, executive director/curator of the Prairie Art Gallery. He notes that the original plans incorporated the 1929 high school, home to the Prairie Art Gallery since the 1980’s, into the Montrose Cultural Centre. “The original plan totalled 300 running metres of wall space, which is exactly the right amount to display the largest National Gallery travelling exhibitions,” says Steven.

Restoration can now begin that will integrate the new Centre with the restored 1920 building. The restored space and the link between old and new portions will expand gallery floor space to 14,000 square feet. “This will be the only place north of Edmonton able to display exhibitions on the scale,” says Steven. “In the old space, the ceiling was 11 feet. The Montrose Centre gallery is 22 feet high and 85 feet long. We can hang anything we want on that.”

By Jane Harris-Zsovan