Urban Blueprints unveils the bare bones of our city, reaching behind the facade to bring you the stories behind Montreal’s architectural gems. 

Montreal has long been known as the city of steeples, but let’s be honest, who the hell goes to church anymore? The demise of the Catholic Church in Quebec is well documented; the silent revolution, the end of the despotic Duplessis-Era and the secularization of the state (however touchy this point may be right now).

But secularization has not erased the physical legacy of the formally omnipotent Catholic churches. Montreal has been left with the glorious remains of an incredible number of Catholic buildings. American novelist Mark Twain once remarked, upon visiting our dear city,  that it was the “first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” Over the centuries, the Catholic Church built four basilicas, six cathedrals, dozens of convents and literally hundreds of churches.

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Many of these buildings have gone on to become condominium projects and academic institutions have annexed quite a few, transforming these functionally outdated monoliths into classrooms or student residences. A more recent and exciting transformation is the Church of St. Jude, located in the heart of the Plateau. Winner of a prestigious Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence in 2012, this project rethinks the adaptive reuse of Montreal’s heritage and mirrors our culture’s new understanding of spirituality and community.

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From the exterior, it is difficult to tell that the Church of the Rosary and St. Jude– at the corner of St. Denis and Duluth– is a modern spa and gym. And for good reason– the utmost care was taken to preserve the original facade of brick and steel. Built in 1905 by architect Alphonse Piché, the church was first occupied by the St. Agnes Catholic parish until 1953, followed by the Dominican Order. The Church lay vacant for over 10 years until the Dominican Order sold the property and new ownership started on the 20,000 square foot project in 2008.

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Developer Tony Attanesco describes St.Jude attempts as a “structure within a structure.” The spa is charged with symbolism– with the spa as with the church, natural light plays a primary role. Both the church and the spa create a calm and introspective space. In addition, prominent features of the Church were purposely highlighted – the vaulted ceilings, pointed arch openings, incredible ceiling height and views of the neighbourhood.

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Tom Balaban, the project’s principal architect, kept the new and old bones of the building in constant dialogue. The new spaces were created by a composition of semi-transparent volumes disjointed and pruned that create variations of spatial depth and height, blurring the boundaries between the existing structure and the new additions.

Balaban also plays constantly with the concepts of “seeing or to be seen,” realized by semi-opaque surfaces and tinted windows. Silhouettes of patrons project onto these semi-transparent surfaces, creating an endearing mystique. The enormous terrace on top of the restaurant contains two large hot baths and one cold bath. The juxtaposition of functions shared by different program zones encourages patrons to interact and socialize.

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Balaban has created an oasis from the stresses of everyday urban life. At the same time, he has crafted a communal space, rejecting the notion of the spa as solely a place of solitude and contemplation. Organized religion has had a rough go in the 21st century, leaving somewhat of a void in terms of gathering spaces where spirituality and community are the central aims. The empty edifices of the “city of 100 steeples” provides an immense opportunity to fill the spiritual vacuum created by the demise of the Church, and Balaban’s St. Jude offers a unique alternative to the usual answer of solitary condominiums by fostering social cohesion in the community.

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