Planted in the heart of downtown Montreal, Place Ville Marie is a mid-century icon. Designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1962, the commercial hub is an emblem of the International Style. Alongside a 47-storey financial tower, an elevated public plaza is built atop underground retail that forms part of the metropolis’s expansive underground city. As part of an ongoing re-invention of the complex, design firm and creative agency Sid Lee have transformed a former bank hall into their own dynamic new workspace.
Situated below Place Ville Marie’s pedestrian plaza, the 7,300-square-metre office is a semi-subterranean space that spans a change in elevation between two downtown streets. With an expansive skylight as the only source of natural illumination, the architects took on the challenge of creating a light-filled, contemporary office while honouring the plaza’s modernist bones.
To make the most of an unconventional space, the designers opted for a simple yet dynamic layout that draws natural light from above deep into the multi-level workspace. Nicknamed the “Biosquare,” a white grid-like structure of staircases —and communal seating — is woven through the heart of the space. Accented by lush greenery, the light finishes and open layout create an airy, energetic ambiance in what might otherwise be an enclosed, underground space.
Sid Lee revitalized the interior while preserving much of the existing infrastructure. For example, peeling back the carpet revealed travertine flooring — which was restored to honour the original interior. Meanwhile, the skylights were similarly stripped and enlarged in order to brighten the space with as much natural lighting as possible.
Re-interpreted as social spaces, the stairs that weave through the space blur the distinction from one level to the next, fostering a unified ambiance within. The unconventional layout also gives occupants flexibility to find new and ingenious ways to utilize their surroundings. With no cubicles or assigned offices, Sid Lee employees can choose their own working environment — whether that’s a traditional desk, a larger shared table, a couch or a café table.
To contrast with the bright white working stations, meeting rooms take on a stark stark black ambiance, create a calm and immersive environment separate from the communal spaces. In lieu of compensating for the lack of windows in meeting rooms and private spaces — including the bathrooms — the designers opted to emphasize the darkness with a luxe, moody ambiance.
As Sid Lee co-founder Philippe Meunier puts it, the project is an exercise in bringing the firm’s “entrepreneurial spirit to downtown Montreal and creating an accessible collaborative hub for the city’s creative and business communities.”
The new workspace also forms part of a larger transformation of Place Ville Marie and its surroundings – all led by Sid Lee. Alongside a thorough renovation of the neighbouring Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, the designers have also sensitively re-shaped the plaza that surrounds the office, introducing new plant life and greenery while transforming a parking garage entrance into a public staircase and promenade. As a result of the drastic transformation, the public square has seen a spike in pedestrian activity, introducing a friendly new vitality to what remains a handsome modernist showpiece.