In the fall of 2019, after years of preparation, the University of Montreal will inaugurate the first of a series of buildings that will shape its second campus. The MIL Campus is located slightly north of downtown Montreal on a decommissioned railway yard.
One of the major challenges faced by the university during the planning process was the presence of an existing railway line, still in use, which had to be relocated to make room for the new buildings. The technical solution was to build a viaduct, which would straddle the main access road to the campus. The site was excavated to allow for the underpass and then bermed up to accommodate the 24-metre steel structure of the new viaduct.
Sources of inspiration
The designers who were responsible for the viaduct’s architectural and lighting treatment opted to create a dynamic visual experience. As an early sketch demonstrates, the Wall Drawings series by Sol LeWitt was a major source of inspiration. So was the work of artist Krzysztof Wodiczko whose provocative projections on building façades attracted international attention as early as the mid-1980s.
As the project evolved, it was decided to turn the viaduct’s campus façade into a dynamic light tableau using its steel-framed guardrails and perforated panels as support for a light grid made up of 135 LED bars, programmed to produce ephemeral patterns in constant movement.
The chosen theme for this virtual animation was that of the four seasons: drops of rain, followed by snowflakes, would allude to the fall and winter seasons; creepers would announce the spring and fireflies celebrate the summer. In order to produce the desired effects, the programmers decomposed each season into minute movements. The complete winter tableau is made up of 115 distinct ‘scenes’ while the spring entails 74. The summer fireflies are decomposed into 81 scenes and the raindrops, representing the fall season, into 28. Transitions, composed of 13 movements, were inserted between each season.
The east façade was to be treated in a more static—but no less dramatic—way. At night, the upper structure would appear to float above its sculptural base, its geometry emphasized by light.
The viaduct spans 24 meters and is a simple metal beam structure, typical of this type of engineering work. Reinforced concrete abutments extend into zigzagging retaining walls, creating a dynamic mineral landscape. The walls’ geometry recalls the oblique orientation of the old rail lines, while creating a user-friendly environment for the pedestrians walking along the sidewalks.
Made in four sections, the 44-metre guardrails on either side of the viaduct are steel-framed assemblages backed by perforated steel plaques, all coated with metalized paint. The diagonal steel plates evoke the triangulated motif of more traditional truss bridges.
The 135 programmable LED light bars are positioned on the west side of the viaduct. The bars, 3-foot or 1-foot long, are inserted into the diagonal steel grid, behind the perforated metal plaques added as an exterior layer to the campus-facing guardrail. It includes cut-out slits lined up with the LED bars.
Maintenance is done from the narrow protected sidewalks located on either side of both tracks. Faulty LED bars are easily replaced: the inside metal plaque is removed so the light bars can be pivoted and replaced if need be.
This project illustrates how a banal infrastructure such as a viaduct can be turned into an object of sheer delight. The designers believed that a subtle and poetic use of light would create a gentle transition within this heavily transformed environment. They also hoped to draw attention to the railway yard’s past, the last traces of which will be totally eradicated with the advent of new university pavilions and urban streetscape.
Other designers involved:
• FNX INNOV, Bridge Engineers
Project location: MIL Campus, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Design year: 2013-2016
Year built: 2016-2018