Montreal’s new insectarium breaks down the white box

Greenhouse Plus Museum

Montreal’s new insectarium breaks down the white box

A distinct sawtooth profile innovates on the typical greenhouse form. (James Brittain)

In 1976, architect Roger Taillibert’s Montreal Olympic Stadium opened with a tower tilted on a 45-degree angle—the tallest inclined tower in the world. Many of the 1976 Olympics’ facilities near the main stadium were converted into components of Espace pour la vie, or Space for Life, a science museum complex that includes the Montreal Biodome and the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, with other institutions spreading into an adjacent park. In April 2022, an insectarium designed by Berlin-based Kuehn Malvezzi with local firms Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes joined the city’s natural science ranks.

The Montreal Insectarium’s final form was the result of a seven-year process through design and construction, which began with a 2014 competition. The insectarium’s program is split into two primary spaces: a sawtooth, glass-wrapped greenhouse above ground and a labyrinthine subterranean structure. The insectarium hosts over 3,000 insect species in its specimen collection and over 175 living insect species. The greenhouse is home to an additional 150 living plant species and 3,000 plant specimens.

Landscaping work came from atelier le balto (James Brittain)

Kuehn Malvezzi, Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes told AN that the design team initially considered a “much more horizontal and fragmented” building, though keeping the landscape and built structure connected guided all design iterations. The surrounding landscaped gardens (designed by atelier le balto) feature winding paths that ultimately bring the visitor back into the structure without feeling rigid: A path through an exterior butterfly garden, for example, ends at the insectarium’s underground entrance, connecting the all levels of the building to its landscape.

(James Brittain)

Visitors enter the insectarium through the Pollinator Garden before then proceeding through the Labyrinth, a shotcrete-formed interior that sensorially disconnects visitors from the outside world while leading them through the exhibitions. The architects worked closely with workers in creating a 1:1 mock-up of a cave section, with workers honing a finish that would be applied across shotcrete sections. It took several weeks to install, the architects said, as curing and finishing processes had to be carefully planned and joints between sections that finished at different times had to be smoothed to ensure material uniformity.

Emerging from the depths of insect education, visitors then arrive in the Grand Vivarium—the above-grade greenhouse that defines the building’s glass facade. Gently sloping paths lead them through a series of microclimates, containing some insects that can move freely, while others are contained in glass. A glass-walled space in the middle of the Grand Vivarium hosts workshops, while also supplying spaces for employees to conduct research.

The glass envelope allows for sunlight to enter the space from all angles. (James Brittain)
Within the greenhouse, winding paths lead visitors subtly up through the space. (James Brittain)

The architectural team told AN that their approach to designing the glass system— which they knew would define both the structure’s exterior character and shape visitor experiences on the interior—necessitated a shedding of assumptions about standard curtain walls and mechanical systems. In addition to otherwise common considerations like airtightness and R-value, ultraviolet penetration and natural ventilation schemes were crucial for plant growth. These points led to a “performant curtain wall envelope … with clear glass for maximum transparency, combined with automatic operable windows, roof and wall retractable insulated curtains, large overhead fans, and a cooling mist system.” This approach was paired with a double-glazed wall assembly and a roof system that combines both laminated and bonded double-glazing with interlayer film, allowing snow to melt.

(James Brittain)

The integration of mechanical needs within a glass and metal frame leaves these systems largely exposed to visitors. Apart from technical needs, it serves as a reminder of the level of artificial climatic control necessary to show a wide range of biomes in a single structure in Montreal’s cold northern climate. While the typology of the greenhouse and sloping circulation is reminiscent of the nearby Biodome (which was recently renovated by KANVA), the fully transparent walls and roof on the greenhouse break down the traditional opacity of a museum in favor of the lightness of a crystal palace.

  • Architect: Kuehn Malvezzi / Pelletier De Fontenay / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes
  • Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • Museology: Kuehn Malvezzi
  • Landscape architects: atelier le balto
  • Electromechanical engineers: Dupras Ledoux
  • Structural engineers: NCK
  • Civil engineers: Génie+, Lévis
  • Sustainable Development Advisor: CIMA+
  • Indoor and outdoor signage: Kuehn Malvezzi with Double Standards
  • Scenographic and multimedia coordination: Go Multimédia
  • Execution and site supervision for museology: La Bande à Paul
  • Special consultant for greenhouses: Capital Greenhouse
  • Tree preservation: Nadeau Foresterie Urbaine
  • Curtain wall installation: Unicel Architectural
  • Glass: Multiver
  • Aluminium: Alumico Architectural Inc.
  • Structure Hot-dip galvanized steel: Groupe AESP
  • Cast-in-place concrete: Coffrage Alliance
  • Reinforcing steel: Acier AGF
  • Building services electricity: TBC Constructions
  • Plumbing: Le groupe Charbonneau
  • Building controls: Regulvar
  • Greenhouse systems, shading system: Harnois Industries
  • Shotcrete custom mix: Sika Canada
  • Reinforcing steel: Acier AGF
  • Interior systems: Grondin Acoustique
  • Epoxy floor coating: Les Peintres Multicouleurs
  • Fabricated metals steel finishing: Groupe C&G Beaulieu