Memento Mori

Francis Ng, McGill University

Student Award of Excellence

During his visit to Montreal in 1881, Mark Twain observed that “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” The Catholic Church, as both an institution and a building typology, was a defining feature in the formation of Quebec’s cultural landscape. However, as its own identity solidified, Quebec sought to free itself from its patriarchal ties to the Vatican. The resulting schism, known as the Quiet Revolution, would strip away the aura that once surrounded those places of worship. The overabundance of churches across the province and the inability to maintain these buildings resulted in closures. The rejection of the Church generates an uncanny recognition of the remaining monuments; what was once so familiar is now alien. The secure House of God has become vacant and haunted by the absence of the very institution that founded Quebec. In dealing with this malaise, it becomes necessary to define a strategy to challenge the immutable nature of churches. The deconstruction of the church generates a process of defamiliarization from an established meaning of the building and its artifacts, allowing for new and varied interpretations to emerge.

Église Saint-Pierre Apôtre, a 19th-century Gothic-style church in Montreal, was chosen to represent the very fragility of ecclesiastical architecture in Quebec today. The church is cast into a concrete-like monument that consumes the body of the original building. Parts of it are inverted into its negative cast, while others remain intact. The resulting reliefs retain the shape and texture of the original features of the building, containing the ghost of its former self. While much of the exterior façade and openings of the original building are solidly cast, the interior church space is preserved as much as possible. The preservation of most of these existing elements enables the church to continue functioning as a profoundly sacred place of worship.

The closure of Catholic churches also meant that their religious artifacts would need to find a new home. Religious art that is of value only to the collective memory of the people in Quebec often becomes a burden for the diocese, and in response to this difficult situation, the thesis proposes a new addition above the existing church to permanently house and archive these disused religious artifacts. The vaulted nave ceilings are removed to establish a visual connection between the church and this new program, reinforcing the vertical relationship between sky and earth, sacred and profane. As such, the church/archive strives to reconstitute these fragments of art, of history, and of memory that represent Quebec’s identity from a time long gone.

Jury Comments

KM: This student’s overall presentation exhibits a level of maturity in identifying the essence of the issue. This project is beautifully executed and concise in its concept.
MM: This is a spectacular presentation of an illusion. There is a great representational ambition to reflect on faith and the Catholic Church, and an evocative and skillful use of black and white. I admire the technique.
MS: It’s not exactly adaptive reuse—it’s adaptive destruction. The project is very cogent.