APT XVIII No.1 & 2 1986
LES FORGES DU SAINT-MAURICE... WE'VE SEEN THIS BEFORE.
NO, NOT REALLY. HAVE A CLOSER LOOK...
Some of you will start by looking at the pretty pictures. In the
following articles on les Forges du Saint- Maurice, the oldest industrial
site known in Canada, remember the Franklin House in Philadelphia,
and think: "Oh, we've seen this before". Well, have a
closer look. The challenge at les Forges du Saint-Maurice was quite
at another scale and the solution much more complex.
It all started in the late sixties. The site at les Forges du Saint-Maurice
belonged primarily to the Provincial Government of Quebec. Parks
Canada owned only a small portion of it. An historical and archaeological
programme had already been undertaken by the province. In the early
seventies, Parks Canada and the Provincial government of Quebec
concluded a deal: the portion of land owned by the province at Les
Forges was transferred to the Federal Government in exchange for
another historical site owned by Parks Canada in that province:
the Mill at Île Perrot.
One of the most extensive historical and archaeological research
programmes in the history of Canada thus began. It would last for
a decade, and involve dozens of historians and archaeologists not
mentioning the other disciplines such as landscape architects, anthropologists,
interpreters, curators, architects and engineers. The historians
developed a computerized approach to their research, a first in
The restoration architects and engineers followed that research
closely. At one point the picture became clear. We knew how the
site had evolved architecturally and we knew or had a pretty good
idea of what archaeological remains we would have to protect and
offer to the public. The next step was to put together a feasibility
study based of several restoration options.
The challenge was interesting. The example that I most often used
to try to explain it in a few words is the following: consider a
car manufacturing plant in Detroit. It operates for 150 years. Then
for various reasons, the industry dies and the population moves
to another location. It is discovered by a future generation; only
the foundations of the buildings and bits of pieces of the assembly
and production lines are found. The restoration architects are then
asked for development options. The first question that comes to
mind is: what is really the essence of this site? Our answer for
Les Forges was the industrial process. The same would apply to the
Detroit plant: the car manufacturing process and how it evolved
is what is worth passing to the future generations. The buildings
have no real architectural significance: four walls, a flat roof.
Neither the best nor a significant example of XXth century industrial
architecture; simply a shelter, as economical as possible for the
industrial process happening underneath it. Do not misquote me:
worth saving... when it is there. When it is gone, it should not
So what were the realistic architectural restoration options offered
to Parks Canada in the context of the international Charter of Venice?
Without going into too many details, the following options were
1. Stabilize the remains and expose them one way or another.
An economical approach, everything considered. But, in an area
covered by snow almost half the year, the interpretation potential
of an archaeological site, consolidated and presented as such has
its inconveniences in Canada. Furthermore, exposed ruins in a climate
where we have some 350 freeze-thaw cycles per year also presents
2. On the basis of extensive historical and archaeological documentation,
reconstruct some of the buildings and a portion of the industrial
If one decides to build something over the ruins, partial reconstruction
could be argued and done. It was actually the solution preferred
by the local population. We discouraged it because we were convinced
that the architecture was not worth spending the millions that would
have been required to recreate it. A simple wooden building built
in the 1700s is one thing. To rebuilt it in the XXth century and
open it to the public with the security codes that we have to respect
as it becomes a public building, is altogether another thing. Furthermore,
the architecture was not really interesting: it was not more interesting
than the architecture surrounding the Detroit car manufacturing
plant is today. The primary interest was the industrial process.
3. Protect the remains and take a contemporary approach to interpretation
of the architecture and the industrial process.
This was the preferred option. To protect the archaeological remains
and enable the visitors to see them all year round and to build
something over them. That something should be a volumetric expression
of the industrial process rather than the reconstruction of buildings
because we felt that the industrial process was what was important
at Les Forges. By "volumetric expression" we meant that
the architectural volumes or forms should express the industrial
process itself, in its evolution over a span of 150 years, that
the "sheltering" element of the solution should be essentially
the mechanisms, not four walls and a pitched roof or any variation
Management was convinced to adopt solution three after numerous
presentations and arguments. An architectural firm was hired to
try to translate this concept graphically. After a couple of months
of work, it was obvious that it could not come up with a proposal
that met our expectations. The concept was quite revolutionary and
required a creative design solution which was far beyond the capabilities
of most architectural firms at the time and this one in particular.
This is when we decided to try a "limited architectural consultation",
not an unusual technique, but one which is not very often used.
Parks Canada invited (and paid) five architectural firms, two from
Quebec City and three from Montreal, to come up with an original
design solution to the selected option. A professional coordinator
was hired to ensure that the five firms would be fed the same information
and that everything would go smoothly.
It did, and I think that the result is quite original. The three
dimensional spatial frames proposed by Gauthier, Guité, Roy,
the selected firm, remind us of the architectural forms that once
were there. The outstanding achievement of their concept is the
way they have resolved the question of the "expressive volumes"
for the industrial process: 150 years of industrial process is explained
architecturally; THE ARCHITECTURE IS THE INDUSTRIAL PROCESS, AND
THE INDUSTRIAL PROCESS BECOMES ARCHITECTURE.
If you read the following articles with this in mind, I am certain
that you will agree that this is not something that you have seen
Furthermore, the work done by Roch Samson and especially Achille
Fontaine to rediscover, understand and explain the various mechanisms
is quite unique. It took almost a decade of work and close collaboration
with the archaeologists and historians to understand each element
of this gigantic puzzle, especially when the 18th century engineers
were not exactly doing on site what they were reporting to the King
of France in writing and in their drawings (so what else is new?).
Their understanding of the mechanisms at Les Forges is not only
graphic, but also quantitative in terms of engineering.
The scale and quality of the professional work done at Les Forges
and the level of interdisciplinary work made it one of the most
sophisticated restoration projects ever undertaken by Parks Canada.
What you see at the site is only the tip of this iceberg of knowledge.