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Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion

Inaugurated on November 21, 1991, and unanimously hailed by the critics, this pavilion is home to the galleries used for major exhibitions.

Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion
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The funds bequeathed by John W. Tempest in 1892 and Horsley and Annie Townsend in 1955, as well as the generosity of the Museum’s Volunteer Association, were crucial over the years in building the ambitious collection housed in the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion.

History

In October 1986, Paul Desmarais, Sr., as well as Bernard and Louise Lamarre, along with a few companions, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Senator Leo Kolber, were aboard the Trans-Siberian train travelling from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean. Every evening, in the dining car, Bernard Lamarre attempted to persuade his friend Paul Desmarais to help him kick-start the project to expand the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Bernard Lamarre had an impressive arsenal of arguments that he was prepared to use, one after the other, to convince Paul Desmarais to play a part in it. Desmarais loved big projects, especially when they involved architecture. During their first evening on the train, Bernard Lamarre gave an outline of the history of the Museum to Paul Desmarais, and told him about the expansion plan, which would make it into an institution with international influence. He also related that the Museum had acquired buildings on Sherbrooke Street, as well as seven houses on Crescent Street. Moreover, as he explained, he had approached various levels of government and been successful in receiving their support for the project.

Paul Desmarais Sr., P.C., C.C. (detail), 1980s, black and white photograph. Archives, MMFA.
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Six levels to explore

Level 4

Arts of One World
Stéphan Cretier and Stéphanie Maillery Wing

Level 3

Major exhibition galleries
Glass Court

Level 2

Restaurant
Le Collectionneur
The Salon

Level 1

Main entrance to the Museum
Cloakroom
VIP Lounge
M Boutique and Bookstore

Level S1

Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy

Level S2

Museum Collection: International Contemporary Art After 1950
Contemporary Art Square
Graphic Arts Centre

All eyes are on the project…

The expansion began, but immediately encountered strong opposition from Heritage Montreal, architect Phyllis Lambert, Montreal mayor Jean Doré and a great many other stakeholders. Everything connected with the project was the subject of debate—from the location to the architect
to its very concept.

Moshe Safdie’s models for the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. The first proposal, without the New Sherbrooke.

Moshe Safdie’s models for the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. The first proposal, without the New Sherbrooke.

In 1987, Canadian architect Moshe Safdie intended to tear down the New Sherbrooke, built in 1905, to enable the construction of an impressive edifice directly opposite the Museum’s original 1912 Art Gallery. But that plan met with vigorous opposition. The contention was that such an imposing building would completely overwhelm the urban fabric around it.

It soon appeared that it would be impossible to give the building the intended volume. Nevertheless, Safdie, taking his inspiration from the old building, retained the idea of a massive portico for the entrance to the Museum, which would lead into a glass-roofed lobby. The new edifice was modern, airy and inviting, while at the same time reflected its surroundings and the neighbouring buildings in a respectful way.

It seemed natural, even essential, to Paul Desmarais and all the members of the Museum’s Board that the new pavilion be connected to the older buildings by an underground passage beneath Sherbrooke Street. To finance this, Bernard Lamarre set out on yet another fundraising mission—and obtained $8 million each from both the federal and Quebec governments.

Preceding pages: Stages in the construction of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, from the preservation of two of the New Sherbrooke’s external walls to completion.

Stages in the construction of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, from the preservation of two of the New Sherbrooke’s external walls to completion, 1990–91, colour photographs. Archives, MMFA.

Stages in the construction of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, from the preservation of two of the New Sherbrooke’s external walls to completion.

Stages in the construction of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, from the preservation of two of the New Sherbrooke’s external walls to completion, 1990–91, colour photographs. Archives, MMFA.

Moshe Safdie

Over the years, Moshe Safdie, born in 1938, had become one of Canada’s most renowned architects. At the age of twenty-six, only recently graduated from McGill University’s School of Architecture, he had designed Habitat ’67, an extraordinary structure of concrete cubes proposing a revolutionary new concept in residential architecture. He had been director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard University since 1978 and had offices in Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Jerusalem.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new building was inaugurated on November 21, 1991 and just as soon unanimously hailed by the critics. Nonetheless, there were some caveats expressed in respect to the ramped staircase leading from the entrance hall. Some found its incline too shallow, its steps too deep and its risers too low, making it awkward to navigate. But, according to Safdie, that was intentional, “so visitors will be aware they have entered a place where they won’t walk at the same pace as on the street.”

It is considered that the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion greatly contributed to changing the Museum’s image, making it more accessible and inviting. The transparent façade is just as monumental as the Maxwell brothers’ Neoclassical portico across the street, but much more welcoming. At the same time, it expresses a radically different, much more modern concept of a museum than that generally expected.

Moshe Safdie, architect, 1991.
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