Nobody in Canada had ever seen anything like Place Ville Marie in Montreal when it opened in 1962—a giant modernist tower built over a vast underground shopping concourse. It sat on a big windowless base that enclosed four big banking spaces for the Royal Bank of Canada, which was headquartered in the building.
That podium base is now renovated by Sid Lee Architecture as its own Montréal offices. They call it the Biosquare because of its shape and biophilic elements. Biophilia, as defined by the late biologist E. O. Wilson, means “love of life.” As my colleague Russell McLendon noted, it isn’t just about being out in the forest with Bambi, but can also bring nature inside.
“That’s the idea behind biophilic design, which takes a holistic approach to helping modern human habitats mimic the natural environments that shaped our species,” wrote McLendon. “This can mean a variety of things, from the basic form and layout of a building to the construction materials, furnishings and surrounding landscape.”
The Sid Lee renovation strips the building back to its basic structure, with a grid of working spaces added as mezzanines under the giant skylights. It’s all white and bright and full of plants. According to the statement:
“Covering the entire office area, the grid made it possible to conceptualize an open zone where different functions coexist easily and freely. In contrast to siloed, fragmented offices, Sid Lee Architecture used that template as a platform to link all of the spaces and the people moving within them. The Biosquare is thus a shared microcosm with endless possibilities; a collective world where professions mingle and the boundaries between functions are blurred.”
In an era when nobody wants to go back to the office, this one looks like it could drag you back, from the café on the ground floor to the bright and attractive working spaces of various sizes above.
“Here, the grid structure serves as a framework for bringing together different worlds in a single ecosystem. It is a large canvas that allows us to deploy creative territories and gives the visual impression that anything can be built, that we can integrate blocks, walls, new functions and new ideas as they appear. This architectural metaphor also reminds us that everything is connected while free-floating in the air.”
Looking at the photos, it seems hard to believe that this would meet any modern standards for accessibility—so many stairs and levels! But when you look at the plans, it is clear that these are mostly flat floors, and all of the stairs and landings are superfluous to the basic requirements for circulation.
During the pandemic, I composed a series of posts about how the office was dead and not coming back. I wrote: “I believe that the end of the office has been nigh since the Third Industrial Revolution of the computer age started and that it was being artificially held back because people are slower to change than technology. The pandemic changed everything because it made it all happen overnight, whether we wanted it to or not.”
This was a very good thing. Every square foot that is not built, whether it be a glass and steel building or a concrete parking garage, is great for the environment from a sustainability standpoint.
But when I look at Sid Lee Architecture’s offices, a renovation of a 60-year-old space into something marvelous and modern and bright, I am reconsidering. These were windowless blocks—the type of spaces that usually just get demolished. We get told all the time that these older buildings in London or New York are not suitable for modern functions.
And then Sid Lee Architecture shows this isn’t true at all, that you can do wonderful things in existing spaces if you are clever. I hate using clichés like “think outside the box,” but they really did.
The video is worth a watch: