Text description provided by the architects. The French River marks the transition to the Canadian Shield, a landscape of granite scrapped bare by the passage of glaciers. In its descent from its headwaters, the River transforms from a fractured granite gorge, into a vast delta of sculpted granite islands and outcrops. Designated as Canada’s first Heritage Waterway, the River served as a trade route between First Peoples, and for Europeans, was the primary route for inland exploration of the continent and as the “Voyageurs’ Highway”. It has been a primary source of uniquely Canadian mythology, inspiring native pictographs and European depictions of heroic river journeys, and contemporary work from the Group of Seven.
The project establishes an architecture of the River, defining and invoking its physical qualities and cultural legacy through an integrated approach to architecture, landscape and exhibit environments. Moving beyond the role of container, the project embraces its condition as a place of passage, and is itself an expedition; through its siting, organization, views and exhibition, and as a responsible construction in nature. Flowing across an archetypal landscape of rock and water, visitor experience is organized along a continuously inclined topography of found and constructed elements that establish an interpretive and spatial armature for the project, which interprets the River’s descent from its headwaters at Lake Nippissing to its delta at Georgian Bay.
Sited upon an outcrop of exposed granite, the building has been organized into a series of terraces that respond to its sloped topography, providing a barrier-free path that connects the elevated parking area with an existing lower level picnic zone. The terraces provide connections between interior and exterior programme areas, and are sized and configured to accommodate multi-tasking of the facility for wide ranging user groups, and to promote extended seasonal use. The ‘entry terrace’ has been located southward to maximize solar aspect, and its flanking walls provide shelter from westerly winds. The ‘events terrace’ is located on the sheltered easterly side of the building and is provided with a deep overhang for inclement weather. The ‘teaching terrace’ serves as an outdoor amphitheatre for school group presentations. The vast soffit of the exhibition hall provides an outdoor sheltered space for hikers using the adjoining trail system.
Responsible stewardship extends the interpretive experience of the project and gives form to the project.
Across the inclined topography of the project a series of ‘islands’ serve a sites for thematic messages, seating elements and site servicing infrastructure. Stewardship messages are introduced in the parking area, where ‘islands’ contain water and sewage bio-filter systems, which are located above grade to minimize disturbance of the rock landscape. Rainwater, and its passage across the site, has been legibly managed through a cistern ‘island’ that regulates stormwater flows and minimizes erosion of the site’s thin soils. A high performance building envelope constructed from structural insulated panels, together with heat recovery on ventilation air, provides an energy conservation strategy that exceeds MNECB standards by 40%. Sited upon an outcrop of exposed granite, the building has been detailed to establish an insulated thermal mass, which is partially exposed on the interior, and a forms a central part of the building’s exhibit.