Gilles Saucier, one of the leading Canadian architects and a design partner at Montreal-based Saucier+Perrotte Architectes that was founded in 1988 invited me to his studio to discuss how he starts his designs and where he finds his inspirations. Simply by looking and even visiting his buildings one may think that the architect is all about performance and efficiency. His edgy, well-crafted edifices may recall Formula One racing cars. But when I stepped into Saucier’s office – dark, mysterious laboratory where he personally experiments with tree roots, branches, wood, glass, rocks, resin, beeswax, and other organic materials – the real intentions of his work started to reveal.
As he explained to me, his design process is never linear and literal. What starts as something natural and intuitive, gradually develops into abstracted, clear-cut, contemporary, and evocative forms and spaces. Yet, nature is always present; there is a strong dialogue with it. And, in fact, the architect prefers to work in the countryside, on virgin land where he enjoys much more freedom to propose his own typology and evolution. Saucier has graduated from Laval University in 1982 and he has been teaching architecture since 1990 at many leading Canadian and American Universities, including MIT, University of Montreal, and McGill University. In 2002, the Canadian Centre for Architecture began archiving architectural drawings and models by Saucier + Perrotte. The firm represented Canada at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004, and in 2009, Saucier + Perrotte received The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Award of Excellence for Best Architectural Firm in Canada. The architect’s best-known buildings include transformation of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (in progress), Sport complex Saint-Laurent (Montreal, 2017), Soccer stadium (Montreal, 2015), and First Nations Garden Pavilion at the Montreal Botanical Garden (2001).
Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did you discover architecture?
Gilles Saucier: I grew up in the countryside surrounded by nature. I am a contemplative person. I was always interested in trees. They are still my most powerful inspiration. At the university, I started studying biology. I went into it by intuition. Architecture came into the picture two years later through my drawing teacher. He recognized my talent and talked to a professor at architecture school about me. They asked me to present my portfolio. There were drawings of trees, flowers, roots, mushrooms, and bugs, but this professor saw architecture in them. They offered me to switch and they accepted me on the spot. I didn’t fight it because I was curious to know what they saw in me. I started school very early, when I was just four. So, even after switching from biology and starting to study architecture from the beginning I was back on track, as I was the same age as my classmates.
For me architecture is an organic thing. But it took some time for me to realize that. I think I found myself when my love for trees became a part of my design process as an architect. I was able to find who I am through my work and research. I enjoy the process of creation itself. This is who I am. My work is all about nature, geology, trees, and everything organic. My architecture grows out of the design process that I discovered and developed. It is representative of who I am.
VB: What would you say are the main intentions of your architecture?
GS: I am someone who is searching for the nature of the site and the ground, on which I will be building. Every site is quite complex. I am interested in discovering different layers. I want to understand the place and find something that can evolve into a potential project. Any place is an evolution of an environment. I want my buildings to reflect that. I want my buildings to be anchored in the reality that constitutes the character of the site. In cities the evolution is usually a given and we must relate to it, but when you work in the countryside you can propose your own evolution because you work on virgin land. In our sports complex Saint-Laurent in Montreal we had a certain freedom to propose our own typology and evolution. The idea was to have two opposing angular volumes of contrasted forms, materials, and colors. They appear in suspense to evoke the dynamic nature of the activities taking place within. Movement and energy are the main notions that this building composition evokes. So, all my buildings are about capturing a certain mood of what is going on inside. They are about anchoring into the site, and capturing the evolution of time, nature, and geology.
VB: Could you talk more about your design process? How do you begin? What questions do you ask?
GS: First, I am a listener. So, it is always a conversation with the client. I want to know why a particular site was chosen. If it is a house, I want to know about my client’s daily routine, friends. But I don’t want to do many houses. I have done quite a few and I am looking for new type of projects all the time. More importantly, for me, the design process starts with coming across evocative and sculptural objects that would anchor a project in something very conceptual. It is just like being at school. I need to understand something about the process, not to focus on the final look. For example, we were asked to do an addition to an existing museum and the client wanted me to work with marble. But that’s not how I work. I need to explore, investigate, invent. So, I asked myself – what is marble? That is how I ended up creating my own marble.
VB: What do you mean by creating your own marble?
GS: I was interested in evocative qualities of the material, such as transparency or its pattern. So, I decided to cast a block of resin that I experimented with by slicing it, burning, incorporating glass particles into it, superimposing various parts, and so on. I also work a lot with wood and plastic. And then I always imagine how it would be navigated inside. In this case, a vein within the block was a starting point for finding a circulation path. This may seem very abstract or arbitrary, but I know what I am looking for. I know the program and looking for clues about how to find the right solution, how to make circulation work. I could put windows directly, to frame particular views, but I always discover where they should go by experimenting with my objects. Certain cuts reveal cavities or specks that guide me. And it is always a two-way process. My experiments inform my search and I constantly align it with the program, structure, and other circumstances. These objects are never literal. They help me to crystalize an idea and they can become a reference. It is back and forth. I spend most of my time fabricating objects. Then I work with my team on how to translate these studies into real projects.
VB: Do you start every project with your own hands? This is quite unique for an office of more than twenty people. You work as a student, in a way, right?
GS: I think so. But this process of creation is very important to me. I must do all the research myself. I paint, work with wood and mud, take photographs, make initial models, and so on. For me, this is architecture. I have to use my hands to discover it. Otherwise, I would not be happy doing it. So, I developed this idea of communication through objects and sculptures.
VB: Was this always your way of designing or you came to it gradually?
GS: I came to it. You said I work like a student. But as a student, I never worked this way. [Laughs.] As a student, I developed my projects through drawings, and they were not abstract. They were very realistic. Coming to this process was quite slow. I became much more observant of nature already after I graduated.
VB: Was there a particular epiphany moment in your practice that suddenly gave you a new sense of direction?
GS: Yes, in 2000, I was invited to design the First Nation Garden Pavilion for the commemoration of the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 at a botanical garden. It is a crossroad of cultures, designed to help visitors to discover customs of the first inhabitants of North America. The project is a museum that occupies less than 2% of the garden grounds. The idea was to represent movement and transformation. For that, I decided to cast a portion of the original path on the site and that became undulating concrete roof of the pavilion that metaphorically raises the path to reveal the cultural memory of the place. The pavilion contains a boutique and offices. I always refer to this project as my first breakthrough. It represents a link. It is between visible and invisible, tangible and intangible, which is what to me art is. That’s why each of us sees something else. Concrete, as a material has nothing to do with representation of the First Nation, but it represents nature of this place and the fact that the original people here were nomads. The roof design represents a notion of being unsettled. This piece is very abstract and not folkloric.
Initially, my architecture was about interpreting a program, which is true for many architects. But I came to a realization that it needs to be more than that. It must be evocative of something else. Something that is related to you. Something that is you. I evolved with my architecture and architecture has been evolving with me.
VB: What words would you choose to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
GS: Movement, layering, digging, nature, evolution, evocation of form, evocation of geology, a state in-between, generosity of space and feeling. If there is no feeling it is not architecture for me. Architecture is something that you will never forget. Intuition is another word. I am an intuitive person, but my intuition is informed by a lot of research. Personality is important. I teach architecture and I always ask students to describe who they are and how would they introduce that in their work in addition to a given program. That is extremely tough because they are not used to that kind of analysis, especially now when everything is becoming impersonal and pragmatic. Here we solve all the pragmatics very quickly and we don’t talk about it. I am interested in what architecture evokes, not how it addresses pragmatics. That’s a given. When I teach, I learn as much as my students. I feel a need to teach. I don’t give them any answers. I ask them questions, such as – who are you? What inspires you?
What inspires me are Ideas and objects, objects that I may bring from my travels or from building sites. If I find something interesting and evocative that speaks to me, I would collect it and it may become an inspiration for a project. Each object is like a piece of memory. Sometimes these objects are not found but made with my hands. While working on one of the projects I went to the site and played with rock formations; I filled a bucket with mud and then took a series of pictures. It is a process of looking for an interesting image that becomes a guiding idea. These objects are totally disconnected from my buildings. But, as an artist, I feel a need to rely on this investigative process. And if you want to stay away from images of other people’s architecture you need to fill your head with something else; something that I find much more interesting. Our buildings are different because my methodology is different.
I discovered my methodology. I never know the result, but I know the process.