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In Montreal, Healthcare Meets Big Public Art Collection

New super-hospital aims to revitalize a downtown stretch.

Rendering of CHUM's facade facing St. Denis, with amphitheater in copper and etched glass artwork by Mathieu Doyon (Credit: CannonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s)

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The Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal is not only the largest healthcare construction project in North America, but when the 3-million-square-foot super-hospital is complete, it will also house the largest concentration of public art in Montreal since Expo 67, a half century ago.

A total of 13 large-scale artworks have been incorporated into the final CHUM site design, all of them in the building’s interior and exterior public spaces, of which there are many. “Azad Chichmanian, of NEUF architect(e)s and New York-headquartered CannonDesign, says the goal was a seamless integration of architecture and art that would be soothing to hospital visitors and welcoming to all.

“It’s a public building. It’s an institution serving the public, so we don’t want to turn our back to the public, and we don’t want them to feel they’re not welcome here,” he says. “[CHUM] is the hospital. … It’s the flagship and it’s the central organizing element of the entire healthcare environment of Quebec.”

CHUM is the University of Montreal’s teaching hospital, the result of a merger of Montreal’s three major francophone hospitals in the mid-1990s. Back then, while the merger addressed some of the hospitals’ issues regarding efficiency, cost, and care, infrastructure needs fell by the wayside. The new CHUM site will bring all three hospitals together in a series of new buildings being billed as both an improved medical facility and a revitalization of a neglected stretch of downtown into a new health district.

Thus the art and public spaces serve overlapping roles: They break up what might otherwise be an imposingly large building, and provide a series of gradations from the very public life of Rue Saint Denis to the very private interior of a hospital room.

“People are being born on one end and unfortunately passing away on the other, the full cycle of life and the emotion that goes in between, so for every tool we had we tried to put it to use to make sure it was not only extremely functional and efficient, but as well human, approachable and beautiful,” says Chichmanian. “The scale could be crushing and unwelcoming and it was a challenge to make sure it felt like a permeable building, a welcoming building, and one in which you would not be lost.”

“La traverse des lucioles” by Louise Viger (Credit: CannonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s)

Along Rue Saint Denis, one of Canada and Montreal’s most famous streets, Neuf and CannonDesign incorporated sections of a historic church and house, a partially indoor, partially outdoor space for contemplation, and a large public courtyard with an amphitheater, in a bid to break up the facade and relate to the low- and midrise buildings across the street.

“The CHUM is a city within the city,” says Yves Louis-Seize, a Montreal artist who served as president of the project’s art committee. Quebec has an ordinance requiring that 1 percent of a public project’s total construction costs be set aside for public art. With an art budget of more than $2 million CAD and a total of 13 large-scale artworks completed, planned or in progress, CHUM is the largest project in the history of the program.

In choosing artworks, Louis-Seize says the committee sought works that were “of our time, and challenging,” and that also met the needs of those visiting or working in a hospital. Artworks needed to be accessible and easy to clean in case of an infection, and also provide space for healing and quiet contemplation.

An artwork by Mathieu Doyon depicts five mountain summits, etched in glass across eight stories of the hospital’s St. Denis facade. Another, by Louise Viger, adorns the atrium that will serve as the main public entrance until phase two of the CHUM is complete. Her artwork, “La traversee des lucioles,” is an ascending series of jagged ledges that will glow a gentle blue.

Other artworks are more seamlessly integrated, and play dual roles. Artists Cynthia Dinan-Mitchell and Yannick Pouliot contributed ornate benches. Nicolas Baier’s installation, “Ligne de vie,” traces the ribbon of public space on the Saint Denis side of the building. It mimics the flashing, peaking line of an electrocardiograph monitor, moving from one end of the public space to the other, providing orientation. In addition to the large central courtyard, the design includes rooftop terraces that open up rooms to air and light, which healthcare professionals increasingly view as vital for healing. Some of those terraces also feature large representations of medicinal plants dating back to Montreal’s founding.

Rendering of interior courtyard with medicinal plant design, and steeple in upper right (Credit: CannonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s)

A pedestrian bridge connecting two buildings — normally a no-no in Montreal, which relies on underground connections — has been turned into an artwork of its own. Clad in perforated copper, the passerelle appears as a glittering archway when lit at night.

The passerelle (Credit: CannonDesign + NEUF architect(e)s)

The historic church steeple will also house an artwork, the first sound installation funded through the 1 percent for art program. Louis-Seize says the installation responds to the steeple’s unique acoustics, and will include sensors that allow sounds to change according to how a visitor moves in the space.

Another first for the Quebec art program: One artist has been commissioned to document the construction process in photographs and writing, and will present the findings in book form at the end. It’s among the more ephemeral artworks ever funded through the program, but seems vitally tied to the complexity of CHUM’s evolution. The super-hospital has been over a decade in the making, and Chichmanian says it has become a scapegoat for all the shortcomings Quebecers see in their society. He hopes the end result might revive a faith in large public projects that was so injured by the city’s very expensive 1976 Olympics.

And maybe, also, a faith in hospitals. “It is not unfortunately a pleasant experience here, so this hospital really did have the ambition to give a human side to the giving of care in Quebec, nothing short of wanting to redefine the perception that Quebecers have of hospitals,” he says.

The first phase of the CHUM will be operational in fall 2017, and features 10 artworks. Phase two will contain the remaining three.

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: arts and culturehealthcareanchor institutionsmontreal

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