Interior redesign complements extant architecture with minimal use of materials
Housed in the former Velodrome constructed for the Montréal 1976 Olympic Games, the Biodome opened in 1992 and is a jewel in the crown of a consortium of facilities that collectively account for the most visited museum spaces in Canada.
After winning an international architectural competition in 2014, KANVA, co-founded by Rami Bebawi and Tudor Radulescu, was commissioned for the $25 million project by Space for Life, the body charged with overseeing operations of the Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium, and Botanical Garden.
“Our mandate was to enhance the immersive experience between visitors and the museum’s distinct ecosystems, as well as to transform the building’s public spaces,” notes Rami Bebawi, a partner of KANVA and the project’s lead architect. “In doing so, we embraced the role that the Biodome plays in sensitizing humans to the intricacies of natural environments, particularly in the current context of climate change and the importance of understanding its effects.”
KANVA studied the complexity of both building and program, a living entity comprised of ecosystems and complex machinery critical to supporting life. They realized that any intervention they proposed must be very delicate, and would require careful coordination and management within a truly collaborative design process. The success of this approach serves as a model for the future to better address the environmental issues in design.
The team began by targeting spaces that could be transformed in ways that would maximize the value of the building’s architectural heritage. The carving of a new core combined with the demolition of the low ceiling at the main entrance opened the space skyward to the extraordinary roof, composed of massive skylight panels that infuse the building with an abundance of natural light.
This massive open space became the circulation core between the ecosystems. To guide visitors, KANVA worked with Montreal-based Sollertia, on the parametric design and construction of a lightweight fabric living skin  that could be wrapped around the ecosystems to guide visitors, differentiate spaces and modulate the multi-sensory experience of the exhibits. The fabric walls total 500 metres in length, with the largest section being 18m x 18m.
The complex curvature of this biophilic skin, with its aluminum supporting structure, required sophisticated engineering and minutely precise prefabrication. Using a combination of tension, cantilevers, and triangular beams for suspension, the system is anchored to a primary steel structure. Mechanical junctions accommodate a variety of movements and allow for on-site adjustments.
Text edited by SABMag editior Jim Taggart, FRAIC from material supplied by the project team.
- Design Architect and Project Manager KANVA
- Collaborating Architect NEUF architects
- Textile Architecture Specialist/Fabricator Sollertia
- Electromechanical Engineers Bouthillette Parizeau Inc.
- Structural Engineer NCK Inc.
- Building Code and Cost Consultant Groupe GLT+
- Specification writer Atelier 6
- Lighting Design Consultant LightFactor
- Collaborating Exhibition Designer La bande à Paul
- Collaborating Set Designer Anick La Bissonnière
- Collaborating Museologist Nathalie Matte
- Wayfinding Specialist Bélanger Design
- Land Surveyor Topo 3D
- Acoustics Specialist Soft dB
- Photos James Brittain
The complex curvature of the fabric membrane walls, with their aluminum supporting structure, required sophisticated engineering and precise prefabrication. The membrane chosen for the Biodome (Alphalia Silent AW by Sollertia) has acoustic properties which reduce sound reverberation and improve the comfort of the visitors.
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