ADHOC Architecture: Ad Hoc Conversation with Jean-François St-Onge, Architect and Principal
On architecture, design, plex projects, public spaces, and home.
GREENPRINT: What led to the creation of ADHOC architects, and what mission, principles, and philosophies guide the architecture undertaken by ADHOC?
Jean-François St-Onge: ADHOC architects is a creative architecture firm, born out of the meeting of two architects with unique and complementary personalities. We were brought together by shared passion for architecture, and common vision. We decided to unite our skills by founding the firm ADHOC architects to offer services in architecture, interior design, and urban design to Montréal. This winning partnership has been awarded at the Emerging Talent Award at 2018’s Grands Prix du Design. Our driving objective is to highlight intrinsic elements of places, and enhance these “places” through innovative, identity-based, contextual, and poetic architecture, in order to propose creative concepts embedded in the spatial experience we create and expand. The name of the firm evokes the Latin phrase ad hoc, meaning “for this purpose”, and carries with it the entire philosophy of the firm. Thus, to form an ADHOC team is to conceive a system of work organization, outside preconceived and traditional structures, with the aim of solving a specific problem. Reflecting an innovative and multi-faceted practice, specific to ADHOC architects, this transversal approach strives to maintain an unquestionable level of quality, and to create a truly collaborative and multidisciplinary research laboratory.
GREENPRINT: How does architecture contribute to the unique identity of our Montréal neighbourhoods?
Jean-François St-Onge: When we talk about the architectural identity of a neighbourhood, we often refer to its built architecture, or “the solids”, and forget about the space between these constructions, or “the voids”. In our opinion, it is in this respect that architecture contributes to creating the identity of our cities and “villages”, and shapes inhabitation. The alley is an excellent example of these urban voids, characterizing certain neighbourhoods. The alley void is often the witness, and even the catalyst, of neighbourly activities. Thus, the way in which buildings are situated in relation to one another, and in relation to common or concealed “interstitial tissues”, has an immeasurable impact; these are as considerable as the solids of architecture obviously defining lives flowing through both. The relationship to the street, the presence of balconies or staircases, these are all elements that deeply, and subtly, identify our experiences of neighbourhoods.
GREENPRINT: How does your view of architecture transform our cities, and our daily lives, both æsthetically, and functionally?
Jean-François St-Onge: Architecture is, above all, the reflection of a culture. It is a mirror that can distort, in positive or negative ways, what it reflects. In this sense, one of its inherent forces is to give a definition of the character of each block, neighbourhood, city, or even a region. Architecture shapes the borders of the identities and experiences of those making home, business, and life, in each of these geographical boundaries. Architecture shapes both the memory, and the concrete materialization, of the city’s temporal stream of experiences and adaptations. In our work, we like to consider the city and its architecture as a living organism, which adapts and evolves according to the precepts in place. Above all, we believe that discrete pieces of architecture must be a vector that never imposes a hegemonic identity, but is in dialogue, favouring encounters, and cross-pollination. In this “conversation” between thoughts and cultures formed as buildings and shared spaces, our daily lives are expanded and improved. In the end, the question debated through what we build is this: Is it more architecture that transforms our cities, and our daily lives; or, is it more our daily lives, over generations, that shapes architecture?
In any case, it seems obvious to us at ADHOC that architecture, precisely because it constantly contributes to defining and redefining our city, must be in continuity with the history, visions, and cultures of the place. Thus, æsthetics is not a sterile and external thing, to appreciate and experience. It is not simply something flowing over or through us. These “æsthetics” are a harmonization of the project, its context, and our responses. Functionality and æsthetics dance in this approach. The conceptual and aesthetic choices that guide an architectural project respond to need, to a function or malfunction, fit to purpose and place. One can think of something as “incidental” as residential exterior staircases. If these structures were first, and foremost, intended to serve a specific function, they quickly became more: Not merely concerned with ingress and egress, but morphing into architectural elements, status symbols, conscious or unconscious statements of association with modernism or nostalgia, and eventually contrasting and interlocking emblems of Montréal’s distinct residential neighbourhoods. All these meanings formed, deformed, and reformed, by many people, over generations, for reasons remembered and forgotten. By playing with these paradigms, we can interpret functional elements to give them relevant contemporary character, creating architecture that is adapted to our daily lives, and fitting into the city now, while conducting a current through now, between then, and an entirely unknown future. Architecture is an organism we take part in growing, as architects, and as denizens. It is a child we raise. It is a child we adopt. It is something beautiful we nurture.
Urban design at Saint-Roch, Québec, Qc
Grand prix du design 2015 / Event design and ephemeral installation category / Winning project
Photo: Alexandre Guilbeault
GREENPRINT: What considerations come into play when designing and building plex projects, as opposed to residential architecture?
Jean-François St-Onge: In Montréal we have had the opportunity to collaborate on many of these sorts of projects. In these projects, since our work often consists of integrating the project into an existing urban ensemble, our second consideration, after use, is consideration of the need to capture the character of the existing context. On the street, we sometimes see a more homogeneous ensemble, while in other instances we see the heterogeneity of the site. Both pre existing conditions provide stimulating challenges, and surprises, which we relish.
In the former case, we are inspired by the typologies in place, to interpret these æsthetic codes in ways meaningful to contemporary needs and values. In the latter case, when faced with more eclectic compositions, we tend to respond with a stronger contrast, with the goal of increasing the distinct character of the area.
In all cases, in our practice, we prefer to take stock of the characteristics of the particular context, and form the project out of this, as an advancement of the extant needs and values which have been created through use and interaction by those who have formed through life, the character of the area. Rather than projecting an idealized, and alien, vision of what a street or neighbourhood should be, we carefully assess the needs being addressed by the existing; and, the impromptu design, being created by use, where top-down design has fallen short in the past.
GREENPRINT: Tell us about the dialogue between design and architecture, in these sorts of projects.
Jean-François St-Onge: With projects of this magnitude, interior design plays a major role. It is crucial to combine design and architecture so that the membrane between the disciplines becomes so thin as to be imperceptible. Design and architecture are very much a false distinction, but the greater the number of people served, the greater the myriad “types” of design must feed each other. The project must be perceived as a coherent whole, as a global work, telling a single story. At all times, it is important to create a singular, functional, and attractive place. Whether it is through the design of atypical spaces, or through a graphic signature, the values of the project will be translated through a unique vision, invisibly blending the ingredients of design. Lighting temperature, art, furniture, cladding, materials, reflective values, orientation to streets and natural light, the weight of a door, the feel of a handle: An abundance of tiny choices create a space that facilitates or undermines human health, psychology, productivity, and interaction. In order to create a coherent whole, we work on this refinement at all scales of the project. In the end, all the elements’ interacting; whether urban or natural, architectural or the negative space, interior or landscape; they converge into one strong concept, which can then radiate and express itself fully in the implementation.
Montréal, Qc Residence
Photo: Raphael Thibodeau
GREENPRINT: Has the pandemic had, and will it have, a short, medium, and long term impact on the architect’s work?
Jean-François St-Onge: Personally, I don’t think the pandemic will have an outsized impact on the work of the architect, with the exception of teleworking, of course. That said, the pandemic will only amplify changes that were already taking place, prior, such as the aforementioned teleworking, home delivery, online shopping, interest in local products, and healthy eating, to name a short list.
As far as built architecture is concerned, I always dare to imagine, or at least conceive of, an architecture that lasts in time, beyond decades; even centuries. Currently, with my family, I live in a plex that has undergone very few changes since its construction over one hundred years ago. This building has seen the Spanish flu, two world wars; and yet, the apartment I live in has changed outwardly very little over the years. Considering, in the most simple measurement available, its current market value, and something more complex, my affection for the place, it seems still to meet contemporary needs perfectly!
GREENPRINT: Tell us, as we close our conversation, about a recent ADHOC project you would like to highlight.
Jean-François St-Onge: The WVW project.
It is a 32-unit residential rental complex, located on Wellington Street, in Verdun. WVW is particularly evocative of our design approach. It is a project strongly inspired by its adoptive neighbourhood. The relatively homogeneous and structured aspects of Verdun, and WVW’s immediate built environment, which refers primarily to the pedestrian scale, are sources of inspiration for the project. Each plex has its own materiality, and style, while displaying the proportions of the façades typical of the neighbourhood. The WVW building’s style is based on touchstones from one of its immediate neighbours, to form a coherent built ensemble. The project puts forward a humble, and structured, architecture; but, this is a project whose finesse and cachet recall the plexes of a specific time. The colours of brick and masonry chosen compliment those of its neighbourhood, giving the project sobriety, while enhancing the elements of its contemporary architecture. The project is a finalist for the prestigious Award of Excellence from the Ordre des Architectes du Québec!
It is one of three projects selected in the category of multi-family residential projects.
We are proud that this nuanced approach has caught the attention of the jury. We are in awe of the past, and excited for the future, and thankful for this recognition.
WVW VILLAGE WELL
Residential project on Wellington st., Verdun, Qc
Photo: Raphael Thibodeau