Light fantastic: the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new pavilion is a cultural beacon

Light fantastic: the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new pavilion is a cultural beacon

As Americans grapple with the aftermath of their recent presidential election results, their neighbours to the north offer a welcome cultural respite: the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace in Montreal, Quebec. Opening to the public on 19 November, the CAN$25 million (approximately £15 million, at current exchange) building is the latest addition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and the first in a group of infrastructure projects planned for the Canadian city’s 375th anniversary, in 2017. The six-storey structure is intimate in scale yet wildly ambitious in scope, tracing the story of art from the Renaissance to Richter. 

Designed by the competition-winning consortium of Atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architectes, the 5,000 sq m building is the fifth in the MMFA campus of connected pavilions that showcase an encyclopaedic collection spanning some 40,000 works. Its name is a nod to the history of Montreal – where the ’Great Peace’ treaty between France and the First Nations of North America was signed in 1701 – and to the humanist mission championed by the museum’s director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil. ’It’s important to go beyond the history of art in order to encompass a broader set of values, to be more inclusive, to talk to everybody,’ she says. ’Everybody is touched by peace.’

Veiled in a filigree of aluminium rods that unifies its two stacked volumes (while also limiting glare and heat gain), the Pavilion for Peace is also named for the late couple who donated 100 of the most stunning paintings displayed within it. The Hornsteins – Polish-born Holocaust survivors who settled in Montreal in 1951 – had a sharp eye for Old Masters, and so the densely hung galleries are studded with canvases from the golden age of Dutch and Flemish painting, including luminous works by the likes of Jan Steen, Jan Brueghel, Jacob van Ruisdael and Willem van Aelst. Two floors are dedicated to educational programs, including dedicated space for art therapy initiatives.

The six-storey structure is both intimate and ambitious

’My parents knew that art has the power to bring people together, to foster understanding, tolerance and dialogue across great divides, and above all, to heal the human spirit,’ says Sari Hornstein, who grew up surrounded by many of the works installed in the new building. ’It’s going to be a destination,’ adds her brother, Norbert. ’People will come to Montreal just to see this collection.’

The design ensures that they’ll see the city at the same time. An ’event stairway’ visible through the gleaming latticework leads visitors on an architectural promenade, offering views of the surrounding cityscape – a mix of low-slung Victorian houses and brutalist towers unified by the pavilion’s own layering of concrete and wood – to punctuate their movement through the history of art. ’It creates an interface between the galleries and the city at large,’ explains architect Katsuhiro Yamazaki of Montreal-based Atelier TAG. ’The organisation of the building stems from a desire to make spaces where impromptu encounters and individual reflection can happen simultaneously.’

Bondil embraced the counterpoint provided by the circulation spaces, using the naturally illuminated landings to create ’The Path of Peace’: a circuit of contemporary artworks that include Antony Gormley’s Turn V (2013), Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman (2002), and Jean-Michel Othoniel’s Peony Knot (2015), a monumental bloom of mirrored glass beads that hangs from the ceiling. ’The strolling space is an invitation to discovery, rest and reflection,’ says Bondil. ’Peace must be heard in the present tense through the voices of today’s artists.’

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