Montreal Architects Rescue Mies Van Der Rohe Gas Station from Obscurity
February 22, 2012
Canadian architecture firm FABG have completed their renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s Esso Service gas station on Nun’s Island, Montreal. The structure was conceived as a prototypical station for Standard Oil and was meant to service a three-tower residential complex designed by Mies as part of the urbanization of the island in 1962. The station was closed in 2008, before being granted heritage status by the city only a year later as part of plans to restore the building for use as a youth and senior activity center. FABG responded with a subtle design that both acknowledges the building’s place in architectural history and its need to change with the present. Continue.
As we wrote last October, FABG were meticulous in their restoration of Mies’s design, the authenticity of which has been repeatedly questioned since the station’s completion in 1969, the same year that Mies died. Given the architect’s age and his declining health at the time, not too mention his commitments to several other projects, it has been speculated that his involvement was significantly diminished, a charge reinforced by apparent structural anomalies and “pedestrian details” which would have found no place in a true home of Mies. Montreal-based architect Paul Lapointe assumed the responsibility of the project’s lead architect, with Mies acting as his design consultant, effectively precluding the chance of any close engagement with the master and the station design. FABG were, of course, aware of this fact, and they were careful to preserve the values and influence of the Miesian architecture while actively exploring new ways to rehabilitate the station to its contemporary context.
The Esso Service Station at Nun’s Island, Montreal, 1975. Photo: France Vanlaethem
The stations consists of two glass volumes of similar size, which originally housed sales and services and was later modified to include a carwash, bridged together by the broad steel roof. In between lies a large open space partitioned by specially-made gas pumps. The architects began by carefully removing the building’s glass and mullion elements for cleaning and repair as construction was underway to rehaul the main structure. Towards that end, the building’s beams and columns were repainted and its buff yellow brick repointed, while geothermal wells were installed beneath the asphalt foundation and the original gas pumps, or what was left of them, replaced with stainless steel copies with intake/outtake vents connected to the station’s HVAC system. The architects then reconstructed the original glass pavilions and reprogrammed them, with the larger volume dedicated to the senior group for games and communal meals and the smaller volume, for the younger group to be used for parties and music events. They also contributed wholly new, nuanced changes to the aesthetics of the original design, installing, new linear fluorescent lighting and ceiling panels which reinforce the roof’s primary role as the building’s spatial unifying force and further establish a visual transparency extending from end to the other.