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When fashion designer Denis Gagnon opens a garment bag to show a fall creation, you and I see a dress - fluid, undulating and of painstaking couture construction.


Architect Gilles Saucier, viewing the dress to plan an exhibition space at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, sees topography, dots that constitute a landscape.


Landscape or nature is the link that inspires every project conceived by Saucier + Perrotte, an award-winning Montreal firm known for its modern aesthetic.


"The horizon is a reference for us,'' said Saucier, an accomplished photographer. "A project is something that goes on top or below that famous line.


"Nature is not literally incorporated in its form or shape.''


Saucier will design a space at the museum next fall to celebrate Gagnon's 10 years in business and to show his spring collection for 2011. Details of the garments are under wraps until Gagnon's spring presentation in March. Saucier, who thinks, speaks and designs conceptually, said what's interesting is the idea of fluidity occupying a space that is like a cube.


"It's an exhibition not just about showing clothes in a historic package. What we want to do is show what is in his mind when he designs,'' he said.


Inspired by modernists like Arthur Erickson and Mies van der Rohe, Saucier and partner André Perrotte have won 69 awards, including best architectural firm of 2009 from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Last year, they also won international recognition for Scandinave Les Bains in Old Montreal, including project of the year from Interieurs Magazine and Ferdie, which honours excellence in Quebec interior design.


Among the S+P projects that Montrealers may be familiar with are boutiques for retailer Michel Brisson and designer Philippe Dubuc, as well as McGill University's Schulich School of Music building (with Menkès Schooner Dagenais) and the spa.


Now housed in a renewed 18,000-square-foot 1940s garment factory in Little Italy, Saucier + Perrotte has 20 architects on staff, whose open work stations - anti-cubicles anchored with unprocessed blue steel panels - run parallel to a panoramic horizon shot of Kamouraska along the length of the wall. Naturally, the space is sleek, in black and grey, with a shot of chartreuse at reception echoing the tones of Kamouraska.


The building comprises the second-storey work space, a ground floor studio to be lent to visiting artists and designers, a model shop deemed too dusty to show, and upstairs, Saucier's own apartment.


Current projects include a new science building for John Abbott College with a budget of about $30 million and slated to open in 2012, the Faculty of Pharmacy building for the University of British Columbia - a $100-million project for which "UBC wants something new and different," Saucier said - the National Mountain Centre in Canmore, Alta., and two large housing developments in Toronto, including the 1,000-unit West Donlands projects.


Despite all this, the pair contend they and other deserving firms are not getting prize commissions in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.


"Montreal is known as a design city because some people do good work,'' Perrotte said, noting 90 per cent of the firm's work is elsewhere.


"All architects dream about being invited to build something in France, London, Africa, the United States. This what we have now,'' Saucier added. "We're called everywhere in the world for major projects.


"I'm surprised that the city of Montreal doesn't invest in the best designers. They recognize them. You get the awards, but you don't get the commissions.''


Among major projects for which they competed but did not get commissions are the Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, and in Montreal, the new concert hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra as well as the Planetarium.


Saucier, who studied botany before turning to architecture, said any project starts with phenomena from nature.


As Saucier sees it, the music school, opened in 2006, expresses the continuity of the mountain sloping down to the St. Lawrence Valley. "It is inspired by the way the mountain used to touch Sherbrooke St.,'' he said.


At Canmore, geology is the influence, with a series of strata or layers as the concept. The design process from found object to building can be glimpsed through a photograph Saucier took in Helsinki in 2003. That inspired a black steel sculpture shown the following year at the Venice Biennale. A conceptual model from found rocks on Saucier's country property, sketches and more models followed.


As for the spa, opened last year, it is almost like a promenade into exterior space, according to Saucier.


"How can we represent cold and warm in one room, bring people out of this world for a moment in their life, and protect them, because you're almost naked?" he asked.


Cold was represented with white and grey marble, warm with the wood of the sauna and seating.


"You feel suspended elsewhere,'' he said. "How can you make people feel outside their own boundaries? You can be anywhere in the world. I'm interested in that kind of environment.''


It's an enormous success, Saucier said of the urban spa, with articles having been published in China, Japan, Hungary, England and all over the United States.


Swiss architect's Peter Zumthor's contemporary thermal baths in Vals were a reference, he said.


Small-scale projects can be completed in a few months rather than three or four years like the UBC building.


"Stores are a laboratory of ideas,'' Saucier said, with the the objective in store design always to move forward, to be avant-garde; home projects are more personal.


"When we take a project, it's to do it for real,'' he said.


"Sometimes, we take more time doing a house for $1 million than a much larger project. It's a different process. A small project is an occasion to go deep into the matter.''


"It's a very precious process,'' Perrotte added, noting that a 100,000-square-foot university building involves large crews and many years of work.


For Saucier, the process to conceive a space usually involves photography. Perrotte said he is a doodler. The pair studied architecture together at Université Laval, graduating in 1983 and setting up their firm in 1988.


"I really connect to the environment through photography,'' Saucier said, "not specific photos of the site - mostly it comes from elsewhere.


"It's all about trying to communicate the conceptual source to other people, through imagery that is not literal. Then we can grow together."


A giant blackboard dominates the work floor, although the scribbles are not quite legible.


"If you work more conceptually, you have to communicate the big idea, which is not only one sketch representing the result, but what really inspires you,'' Saucier said.


Asked what contributions he would like to make to Montreal's urban landscape, Saucier said "Montreal needs a strong, recognizable new architecture.''


Asked to imagine a dream project in Montreal, Saucier suggested a more experiential environment as a museum.


"We have literal museums, rooms with works that you show,'' he said. "We need something in the experience of space that will link together together fashion and art, that will create synergy.''


Saucier suggested we need buildings that are not only destinations, but also create public spaces.


"Montreal is perfect in its nature now because there is so much place - there are empty lots everywhere that can constitute the future of this city. "There is opportunity everywhere, on a small scale, to identify a new fabric, a more mature fabric."


Asked for a brick and mortar example - in the firm's case it would likely be concrete, black steel and glass - Saucier remained steadfastly conceptual.


"Montreal needs small public spaces and inter-connected buildings that address the public realm.


"It's about transparency, openness, urban topography."


As for the big sites like the area surrounding the Bonaventure Expressway, "I hope they will do something because otherwise it will be a missed opportunity."


(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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