Walking through the Historic District of Old Quebec City, it can be jarring to see pedestrians wearing Canada Goose jackets or checking their cell phones. These little signals of modernity seem like anachronisms, completely out of place against a backdrop of 17th century architecture and the city’s preserved ramparts. (Quebec is, in fact, the only North American city north of Mexico that has saved its fortified wall.) The neigbourhood, roughly 135 hectares in size, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the two sections of the Historic District—Upper Town, which sits atop Cap Diamant, and Lower Town, which straddles the harbour and is home to Place-Royale, the town square—one can find many architectural jewels. One of these is the Maison de la littérature, or “House of Literature”, the creative reimagining of a neo-gothic heritage church.
At the helm of the renovation project was Chevalier Morales, a Montreal-based firm with a track record of prestigious awards for its work on other cultural institutions. The firm won the project by competition, exceeding the initial ask with an outside-the-box approach. This would include the addition of a new annex adjacent to the existing Wesley Temple, a solution which would make for a more welcoming and transparent entrance.
Wesley Temple was originally built in 1848. Following a closure throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, it was re-opened as a public library and concert/lecture hall for the Institut Canadien, an organization of French-Canadian intellectuals seeking the promotion of patriotism and culture. This iteration of the building’s life lasted until 1999, when it was once again closed to the public. Its latest evolution, the new Maison de la littérature, opened its doors in 2017 and represents a new stage in the Institut’s journey.
Interestingly, by creating a contemporary volume, Chevalier Morales was able to better preserve the historic integrity of the existing structure, restoring the original spatiality of the interior spaces. The House of Literature houses a concert/lecture hall, café, temporary exhibition space, permanent exhibition, creation studios, projection room, classroom, multimedia studio, and an apartment for the library’s writers-in-residence.
The library, one of the oldest remaining public libraries in Quebec, is now accessed via the partially transparent annex. Its main entrance is situated at the bottom of the sloping Chaussée des Écossais (where it intersects with rue St-Stanislas, a street that is also home to the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec).
The outer shell of the annex is comprised of glass panels and underlying perforated brass sheets. This creates a bas-relief effect, a technique primarily used in sculpture to create the illusion of image depth against a smooth surface. This façade is also highly reflective, serving as a mirror for the surrounding architecture and increasing the seamlessness of its integration. From the interior, the annex offers views of the river as well as the historic cityscape.
Key features of the existing building’s exterior saw restoration, such as its stunning masonry and English gothic church windows. This historic volume and the adjacent new addition helped to create, as described by recent press release, a “dialogue between past and present.”
The interiors of the temple portion of the Maison de la littérature are filled with natural light, aided by a very pale colour palette; against the white walls and de-saturated wood grains on the floors, the books themselves stand out as little islands of image and colour. Preserved original features, like the iconic ogive windows and rich moldings on the ceiling, are juxtaposed with contemporary furniture conducive to both solitary reading and communal working sessions. Another choice which plunges the space into the 21st century is the lighting; fixtures are sleek and contemporary. This main area is accessible through a white spiral staircase, which boasts a dramatic, sculptural form. A large circular opening in the centre of the library floor floods the concert/lecture hall below with natural light and creates a unique focal point connecting the upper and lower spaces.
The Maison de la littérature has become a beloved staple of the Historic District and a popular tourist destination for those visiting the picturesque city. It’s the perfect spot to curl up with a book and then discuss ideas over coffee in the posh bistro.
The Maison de la littérature made our list of top ten luxurious reading rooms around the world. To see the other beautiful spaces that made the cut, click here.
Photos via v2com
Photo credit: Chevalier Morales Architectes