Montreal Stars Case Study

Star-gazing building demonstrates environmentally-responsive architecture on Earth

Located within Montreal’s iconic Olympic Park  complex, this project was the winning entry in a two-stage international competition. The project brief called for an intervention that would humanize the rather bleak site, which included an existing underground parking structure adjacent to the Olympic stadium. Together with the nearby  Botanical Gardens, Insectarium and Biodome, the Planetarium is part of Montreal’s ‘Space for Life’,  the largest concentration of natural science museums in Canada.

By Marc Chenouda, M. Arch.

The planetarium is an educational, cultural and scientific museum for astronomy. The architectural response was guided by a desire to connect the building to nature, the place from which the vastness and beauty of the night sky can be experienced most profoundly. Another goal was to make this experience accessible to all, not simply to patrons of the Planetarium itself.

With sustainability a central concern, the decision was made to retain the parking garage and utilize it for part of the building program. This strategy reduced both heat loss and unwanted solar heat gain while offering a wonderful opportunity to explore access to natural light by sculpting the space and creating mood and ambiance.

The concrete structure is draped with an undulating, accessible green roof that connects the various levels of the site and creates an attractive amenity where people can linger amid trees, shrubs and public art. Two large conical skylights project through the vegetated roof, symbolizing the connection between nature and sky, and bringing natural light deep into the building.
These skylights, together with a portion of the upper floor, are new constructions built on top of the existing structure. No additional foundations were necessary.

The ground floor of the building houses the public spaces, including the main entrance, two star theatres, exhibition spaces and a cafe. The second floor houses the administrative offices, while the lower level serves as the link with the adjacent Biodome, and includes related activity areas, change rooms and a dining room.

The Milky Way Theatre, which seats approximately 200, is the traditional astronomical facility where visitors study and learn about the stars in the sky. In the dubbed Chaos Theatre, visitors sit back and relax on bean bags and are taken for a twenty minute multimedia odyssey through the universe. There is also a permanent interactive exhibition with projectors and multimedia games.
The green roof is the most visible ‘facade’ of the new building. Custom-made fescue turf creates a durable and drought-resistant ground cover that permits public access and requires minimal irrigation. Rainwater is harvested in a closed loop system that collects water from areas of permeable paving, both on and beyond the site, redistributing it via a drip irrigation system controlled by the building’s own weather station.
The building contains two large 40,000 litre rainwater reservoirs that capture water from the roofs and terraces. Filtration and treatment systems ensure that the harvested water is suitable for use in the toilets and urinals.

The main energy strategy for the Planetarium was to recycle excessive heat or cooling from the adjacent Biodome, which runs on an open-loop geothermal system. This previously wasted energy supplies more than half the Planetarium’s energy needs. The complementary demands of the two buildings optimizes the use of the geothermal open well system. Extreme weather demands are supplied by high efficiency gas boilers which also act as an emergency back-up system.

The hybrid ventilation and heat recovery systems, manufactured in Manitoba, meet the acoustic requirements of NC20, while recapturing 80-95% of the latent and sensible heat energy from exhaust air, both winter and summer. The fresh-air central system has a water atomization humidification adiabatic system which allows low temperature energy usage as a source of heat.
Furthermore, windows and dampers are installed on the outer walls of the exhibition halls and in the coned-shaped roofs to allow natural ventilation when conditions permit.

In winter, all the excess heat from the equipment, lighting fixtures and visitors in the Planetarium is recaptured by the cooled water circulation system and transferred to the heated water circulation system. In summer, 100% of the heat used to dehumidify the air is recaptured from the cooling condensers.

By its very nature, the Planetarium is designed to stimulate greater public awareness [particularly in children] of the beauty and wonder of the stars. Being part of the Space for Life network, the new facility supports the organization’s mission through communication, conservation, education and research. By actively demonstrating a new way of experiencing nature, the Planetarium encourages people to better protect it.

  • Project performances
    - Energy intensity [building and process energy] = 702 MJ/m2/year
    - Energy intensity reduction relative to reference building under ASHRAE 90.1 1999 = 47%
    - Potable water consumption from municipal sources = 2,187 L/occupant/year
    - Potable water consumption reduction relative to LEED reference building = 70.6%
    - Reclaimed and recycled material by value = 20%
    - Regional materials [800km radius] by value = 20%
    - Approximately 85% of the existing parking structure was retained
  • Project credits
    Architect  Cardin Ramirez Julien + Ædifica
  • Mechanical and electrical engineering  Dupras Ledoux Inc.
    Leed Consultants  EXP
    Consultants  Patenaude-Trempe Inc. Experts Consultants
    Acoustic  Dessau [Acoustique]
    Universal accessibility Société Logique
    Landscape Architect  Fauteux et associes architectes paysagistes
    Code Consultant  Sylvie Destroimaisons
    Technologic integration  Go Multimedia
    Photos  Stephane Brugger, Espace pour la vie [Diane Pinard], Vincent Audy, David Giral
  • Materials
    Lower level of structure uses the existing parking structure, upper level structure uses steel framing clad with aluminum panels, vegetated roofs, reflective membranes on roofs of cones; raised floor system for displacement ventilation. The Dual Core™ ventilation system by Tempeff North America employs two energy cores which deliver extremely high, frost-resistant energy recovery.

Marc Chenouda, M. Arch. is with Cardin Ramirez Julien Architects in Montreal.

Tags: Biodome, Cardin Ramirez Julien Architects, hybrid ventilation and heat recovery systems, Marc Chenouda, Montreal Planetarium, SabMagazine, sustainable architecture and building

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There is a moment before all our global sporting extravaganzas when it all seems poised on a knife edge. Helicopters hover above the stadium, keyed-up athletes shuffle and bounce with excess energy, and organisers bite their nails as they try to hold down nervous stomachs, worried that despite years of planning and the expenditure of billions, it will all go desperately wrong.

Then the trumpets sound, thousands of young people take part in colourful charades, pop stars fight a losing battle with hopeless stadium acoustics – and the Games begin.

The formula is pretty much set in stone, but in 1976 Montreal added a wrinkle. On 17 July, with Queen Elizabeth, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and 73,000 people looking on, the Greek athletes who traditionally led the Parade of Nations came up the ramp toward the Olympic stadium to find their way almost blocked by construction workers.

Out of sight of the cameras and the throng inside the stadium, the staff were frantically wielding shovels and brooms to clear away the building debris left from the manic push to complete the facility on time. In the final scrambling months before the Games, 3,000 labourers had worked in teams 24 hours a day to make it possible for the Olympics to begin at all. They barely succeeded.

Two weeks later, when the last athlete had gone home, Montreal woke up to what remains the worst hangover in Olympic history: not just a bill that came in at 13 times the original estimate, a string of officials convicted of breach of trust and the greatest white elephant of a stadium ever built, but a creeping sense of economic and social decline. Forty years on, no other Olympics has so thoroughly broken a city.


When I arrived in Montreal five years earlier, a war resister from Nebraska with little French and less money, the city was enduring its harshest winter on record. Montreal would receive more than 152 inches of snow in 1970-71, including a March blizzard that killed 17 people.

The endless snow, in a sense, was a mercy. It turned down the heat on the city’s simmering political crisis, which had boiled over the previous October when the terrorist Front du Libération du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped the British consul, James Cross, and the province’s deputy premier and minister of labour, Pierre Laporte. Prime minister Trudeau responded by imposing martial law. Armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets and troops detained hundreds of people without charges.

The FLQ would murder Laporte on 17 October. They released Cross on 3 December, effectively ending the crisis but leaving the city battered, bruised and tense. Even before the kidnappings, Montreal was jittery from a series of FLQ bombs: 95 in total, the largest of which blew out the northeast wall of the Montreal Stock Exchange.

And yet, in those years, the best place to get a sense of what Montreal was and might have been was Le Bistro. It was really Chez Lou Lou, although no one called it that, and it featured more or less authentic Parisian ambience, right down to the surly French waiters.

When I could afford it, Le Bistro was my favourite destination on a weekend morning. One especially frigid Saturday, Leonard Cohen sat at the next table with a blonde companion, both of them sporting deepwater tans from the Greek islands, looking blasé about it all.

Montrealers could afford to be blasé. The city was everything that Toronto, its rival, 300 miles to the south-west, was not: urbane, sophisticated, hip, a place where you could dine well and party until the bars closed at 3am. In Toronto, they rolled up the streets at 11pm and toasted the Queen at public functions.

Montreal was not just the financial capital of Canada, it was also the most European of North American cities, half English-speaking but overwhelmingly French, profoundly cultured and unfailingly elegant, where the old stone of the cathedrals met the Bauhaus steel-and-glass towers of Mies van der Rohe’s Westmount Square.

The crowd at Le Bistro was a cross-section of cultural and political life in a city full of tensions, between separatism and federalism, English, French and Jewish, old money and new. There were political tensions that seemed to feed a creative ferment home that produced Cohen, the bombastic poet Irving Layton, the acerbic novelist Mordecai Richler, the politicians Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque, the actor Geneviève Bujold and the film-maker Denys Arcand.

The Olympics can no more run a deficit than a man can have a baby

Jean Drapeau, in 1970

When, on 12 May 1970, during the 69th session of the International Olympic Committee held in Amsterdam, Montreal won out over competing bids from Moscow and Los Angeles to be awarded the Games of the XXI Olympiad, it seemed to signal another triumph. The city had hosted one of the most successful World’s Fairs ever in 1967, and a new baseball team, the Expos, began play in 1969, defeating the St Louis Cardinals 8-7 on 14 April at Jarry Park in the first regular season Major League game in Canada.

Following those triumphs, the Olympics were sold to the Montreal public as being modest in design and, above all, inexpensive to stage. The mayor, Jean Drapeau – diminutive, autocratic, mustachioed – declared: “The Olympics can no more run a deficit than a man can have a baby.”


The 1970 estimate was that the Games would cost C$120m (£65m) in total, with $71m budgeted for the Olympic Stadium itself. Drapeau took a personal hand in the stadium’s design. He and his chief engineer, Claude Phaneuf, selected the French architect Roger Taillibert, who had built the Parc des Princes in Paris and would also design the Olympic Village.

Taillibert employed his own team of architects and engineers, and was respected for bringing in projects at, or at least near, budget. (The Parc des Princes, originally budgeted at $12m, cost $18m .) His conception for the “Big O” stadium was grandiose, in a style that might be called space-age fascist: it featured an enormous, inclined tower, the tallest such structure in the world, holding a retractable roof suspended from thick cables and looming over the stadium like a praying mantis over a turtle.

There is no evidence, however, that either Taillibert or Drapeau ever had a handle on the management of the various construction sites. There were delays from the very beginning, and construction on the Olympic Park complex (including the Velodrome and Big O) began 18 months late, on 28 April 1973. This put Drapeau right where the powerful and militant Quebec labour unions (the Quebec Federation of Labour and the Confederation of National Trade Unions) wanted him: paying extravagant overtime bills.

Out of a total of 530 potential working days between December 1974 and April 1976, the workers would be on strike for 155 days – 30% of the work time available. In one particularly crucial period of construction, from May until the end of October 1975, less than a year before the opening ceremonies were to commence, the unions walked off the job and no work was done at all.

Oversight was utterly inadequate on every aspect of the project. During the inflationary 1970s, the price of structural steel alone tripled. In 1973, contractor Regis Trudeau, who had been awarded $6.9m in Olympic construction contracts, built a luxurious chalet costing $163,000 for Gerard Niding, who was Drapeau’s right-hand man and head of Montreal city council’s powerful executive committee. Only when a corruption commission forced his hand, five years later, did Trudeau finally produce a bill charging Niding for the house.

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By 1975, the provincial government had seen enough: they removed Taillibert and formed the Olympic Installations Board(pdf) (OIB) in an attempt to get a handle on the construction. Ironically, no one has since delivered a pithier assessment of the corruption than Taillibert himself. In 2011, he told le Devoir: “The construction of the Olympic Park and stadium showed me a level of organised corruption, theft, mediocrity, sabotage and indifference that I had never witnessed before and have never witnessed since. The system failed completely and every civil engineering firm involved knew they could just open this veritable cash register and serve themselves.”

Drapeau himself was never charged or even suspected of personal corruption, but his remark about men having babies came back to haunt him. At the time, the physician Henry Morgentaler was much in the news for openly performing abortions. As the Olympic bill nearly tripled, to $310m, Montreal Gazette cartoonist Aislin drew one of the most famous cartoons of a brilliant career: it depicted a visibly pregnant Drapeau on the phone, saying: “‘Ello? Morgentaler?”


When the Games finally opened, problems plagued the event itself, too. As it would do with debt, corruption and construction chaos, the Montreal Olympics inspired a trend in boycotts, when 22 African nations refused to participate because the IOC would not ban New Zealand for sending the All Blacks rugby team to tour apartheid South Africa. It caught on: western nations boycotted Moscow in 1980 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and communist nations retaliated in Los Angeles in 1984.

Montreal also broke the mould in security. Following the terrorist tragedy at Munich four years earlier, the security bill ended up running to another $100m (more than 80% of what the entire event was initially supposed to cost), not including the cost of the Canadian forces enlisted to help keep order.

Meanwhile, some of the athletes were tainted by accusations of doping, including legendary Finnish postman and distance runner Lasse Virén, who was suspected of transfusing his own blood – a practice that was legal at the time, though Viren has always denied it. Far more serious was the treatment of East German athletes, who dominated their events in part because, the world later learned, they’d been fed performance-enhancing drugs for decades, sometimes without their knowledge, under a programme known as State Plan 14.25. Many later suffered psychological problems and had children with birth defects.

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