An articulated colored lighting scheme celebrates Montreal's historic origins.

» Montreal is unique in that it can trace its 350-year history back to an exact spot, what is today the intersection of Rue de la Commune West and Place d'Youville in Old Montreal, the city's historic district. To preserve this legacy and centuries of archeological findings, La Pointe-à-Callière Archeological Museum was built over the excavated remains of the site. Montreal-based architect, Dan S. Hanganu, who completed design of the museum in 1992, was also responsible for the project's interior lighting, but an overall exterior architectural lighting scheme for the building was not devised until many years later.

In 2001, having already completed a successful urban lighting master plan for Old Montreal, and illumination schemes for many of the most prominent historic structures in the area (City Hall, Bonsecours market, the Old Courthouse, Notre-Dame Basilica, and the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours), Gilles Arpin was the obvious choice to design the exterior lighting for the museum, which sits at the western-most edge of the historic neighborhood.

Arpin is no stranger to lighting. He spent 20 years in the entertainment industry working as a head electrician, lighting director and designer, technical director, and production manager for opera, ballet, and musical productions. Touring shows around the world, Arpin became fascinated by urban environments, so much so that he studied urban planning for two years. Recognizing that lighting could be used as an urban planning tool, he spent the first half of the 1990s completing several projects in Montreal, working to 'raise the profile of urban lighting design.' In 1996, Arpin founded Éclairage Public, which means 'public lighting,' to specialize in the illumination of public spaces and historic buildings. While such a focused practice may seem like a risky business venture to some, Arpin explains that Montreal and the Minister of Culture have allocated approximately $8 million just for the illumination of historic buildings, streetscapes, and façades.

For La Pointe-à-Callière, Arpin's challenge was to respond to the specific architectural elements of the museum, the surrounding site, and the larger context of Old Montreal's lighting master plan. The museum's lighting scheme creates a language complementary to the building's masonry form, a language that plays with contrasts of solid and void, heavy and light, opaque and transparent, and the site's transition from a commercial setting to one that is residential.

The three-story museum has three main components: the new building (referred to as the 'Éperon'); the subterranean archeological remains where museum visitors can walk through several centuries of Montreal's physical history; and the former Customs House. The new building is the complex's main focus, and sits on the only triangular site in Old Montreal, the point where the Saint Lawrence River and the Saint Pierre stream once converged. The last major building to occupy the site was the Royal Insurance Company.

Arpin's lighting scheme relies on color to reinforce the building's architecture. A general wash of light is provided with 150W spotlights attached to the surrounding historic-style street lampposts. The fixtures are fitted with snoots to prevent light from directly shining in pedestrian sight lines. A warm color palette-red, yellow, and orange-is used for interior spaces that are visible from the exterior and the architectural building features that express human activity. A cooler color palette-white, blue, and green-is applied to the exterior portions of the building that face neighboring residential buildings.

The greatest concentration of color occurs at the top of the tower, which houses the vertical circulation elements-a stair and an elevator. Paying homage to the city's nautical tradition and the Saint Lawrence River directly across Rue de la Commune West, the tower resembles the prow of a ship. Since no penetrations could be made in the elevator core walls to attach light fixtures, fluorescent lamps with pink, yellow, and red sleeves were placed on the tower's third-floor stair landing to illuminate the interior of the circular volume. The exterior of the prow is highlighted with in-ground ceramic metal halide sources located at the bottom of the tower.

Although the building is a masonry structure, the two main façades are 'lightened' with large glazed openings. On the south façade, pedestrians can view the excavations protected inside. At night, illuminated in red by means of HID spotlights, the archeological remains take on a theatrical set-like appearance.

Also visible on the south elevation is an exterior colonnade, an outdoor dining area, which is part of the museum's third-floor café. The horizontal cross planes are bathed in red light, keeping with the attachment of specific activities to a particular color palette.

On the north elevation, the transparent section of the façade houses an interior egress stair, and MR16s are used to highlight the structure, turning the mundane into something dramatic. The north elevation also features custom-designed linear fixtures sourced with LED arrays, which graze the stone banding of the façade. Another highlight occurs in the summer months, when a large expanse of the façade functions as a screen, displaying projected historic images from the museum's collection.

Perhaps owing to his theatrical background, Arpin's approach to lighting is based on an economy of means, both in terms of equipment and technique. The lighting scheme for La Pointe-à-Callière seems deceivingly simple upon first examination, but when one looks more closely, it is apparent that there is a rigorous system delineating volumes from planes. The result is a contemporary project that stands on its own, but also fits comfortably within the larger context of this historic environment. elizabeth donoff

project La Pointe-à-Callière Archeological Museum, Montreal
architect Dan S. Hanganu Architects, Montreal, in a joint venture with Provencher Roy Architects, Montreal
lighting designer Gilles Arpin, Éclairage Public, Montreal
photographer Marc Cramer, Montreal
lighting costs $400,000 (Canadian)
watts per square foot 3.4
manufacturers ETC, Lumascape, Lumid, Peerless-Electric, Ruud Lighting, We-ef