KANVA, a Montreal-based firm renowned for meaningful projects extending beyond the boundaries of architectural shapes and forms, is proud to unveil the delicate grandeur of the newly redesigned Biodome, a Montreal science museum that immerses visitors in the authentic environs of multiple ecosystems.
Housed in the former Velodrome, constructed for the Montréal 1976 Olympic Games, the Biodome opened in 1992 and is a jewel in the crown of a consortium of facilities that collectively account for the most visited museum spaces in Canada. “Our mandate was to enhance the immersive experience between visitors and the museum’s distinct ecosystems, as well as to transform the building’s public spaces,” notes Rami Bebawi, a partner of KANVA and the project’s lead architect. “In doing so, we proudly embraced the role that the Biodome plays in sensitizing humans to the intricacies of natural environments, particularly in the current context of climate change and the importance of understanding its effects.”
A calming nucleus
With a massive open space now forming the core between the ecosystems, KANVA parametrically designed a living skin that they could wrap around the ecosystems, and which would serve as a guiding accompaniment to visitors. With exceptionally complicated structural engineering, the installation of the prefabricated pure white, biophilic skin was a monumental task. With no room for error, the skin was curved and stretched around a bowed aluminum structure, using tension, cantilevering, and triangular beams for suspension, and itself anchored to a primary steel structure. Mechanical junctions were also incorporated in order to accommodate a variety of movements and allow for on-site adjustments. The translucent skin harmoniously interacts with the skylights above, with beveled horizons that elicit a sense of calm and infinity. The new core also amplifies the sensorial experience of visitors transitioning from its pure neutrality to the multi-sensorial discovery of its adjacent ecosystems.
KANVA then focused on the journey itself, designing new passages aimed at transforming the existing linear path of discovery into a more dynamic experience, where visitors take charge of their own journeys through the Biodome’s five ecosystems, housing more than 250,000 animals and 500 plant species. Conceptually aiming for a more immersive experience, KANVA focused its attention on soliciting senses, relegating sight to the end of the line behind sound, smell, and touch. From the calming lobby hall, the undulating living skin funnels visitors into a 10-meter tunnel leading to the central core, where their exploration of five ecosystems, including Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Labrador Coast, begins.
A learning process
Before designing a new water basin for the facility’s resident penguins, KANVA staff spent weeks with biologists and veterinarians in order to gain insight into the specie’s swimming patterns. To provide an authentic feel to an observation point where visitors can observe beavers in their natural habitat, the firm studied the architectural prowess of the beavers. The idea emerged to let the beavers carve the wood themselves, which was then dried and used to line the interior of the space.
“Before you can even begin to design in an environment with living species all around you, education and a notion of humbleness are required,” explains Bebawi. “We take basic assumptions about ourselves for granted when we design for other human beings, but designing for an otter or a sloth requires that you re-educate yourself.” The entire experience has enriched KANVA’s journey as an architectural firm. The educational process has advanced their exploration of how buildings, rather than being barriers to external forces, can be rendered more permeable as harmonious cohabitations between humans and nature.