Your visit to Montreal’s Insectarium begins with a walk down a hill, through a garden and indoors into a dark tunnel. As you move deeper into the earth – or so it seems, though you are in tunnels made of textured concrete, a series of cavern-like rooms reveal themselves.
In the first, a giant screen transforms a video feed of the space into a pixelated image: you are seeing as through the eyes of a mosquito: in vague shapes and outlines. Then comes a vibrating floor of metal grates, where mysterious messages vibrate through your feet. Another chamber offers a series of poles with round platforms, where motivated climbers can skitter from perch to perch like a mantis.
By this point, you are beginning to think like an insect, which is the unlikely mission of the insectarium. Rebuilt during the pandemic and reopened in April, 2022, the public facility, part of the city’s Espace Pour La Vie museum district, combines architecture and exhibition design to powerful effect. It is one of the most thoughtful works of architecture Canada has seen in decades.
“You begin the visiting experience in a labyrinth,” explains the architect Wilfried Kuehn. “You reset your perception and you almost become someone else – you are ready to perceive in a different way.” Mr. Kuehn is a partner at the Berlin firm Kuehn Malvezzi, which designed the project along with Montreal architects Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte and the Berlin landscape architects atelier le balto.
The group won an international design competition with Design Montreal for their work on the Insectarium. After beating out competitors including Pritzker Prize winners Lacaton & Vassal, the design team delivered a project with a remarkably strong and coherent concept. “Often, museums need to act as an abstract container for a content that is changing through time,” Hubert Pelletier says. “For the Insectarium, we took the program very literally and tried to materialize it in the most direct way, fusing architecture and scenography as one thing.”
It is a journey from earth to air. After that perceptual reset, you enter a gallery with a few glass display cases, and engage up close with a small selection of preserved mantises and beetles.
All of these subterranean spaces share a humid, mysterious atmosphere. In this cavern-like network of basement spaces, the walls and ceiling are one material – an umber-coloured, roughly textured concrete. The scale, order and structural logic are concealed: you don’t know where you are, what is around the next corner, or whether the edifice might collapse around you. For children, the main audience for this museum, that uncertainty is magic.
But gradually you return from the earth and an insectile consciousness into a human one. First comes a round, domed gallery, a sort of insect Parthenon, where 72 display cases set out arrays of dried insects arranged two ways: by colour, and by shared characteristics such as the use of camouflage. This array, designed by Kuehn Malvezzi, plays with the conventions of 19th century natural history museums.
Then it is up into the light on a winding passage, and finally, suddenly, you’re in a space full of fluttering butterflies. This is the vivarium, a tropical garden that grows under a sawtooth glass roof, its glass insulated and lined to modulate the daylight.
“First you pass through the earth, which is where most insects live,” Mr. Kuehn says on the flow of visitors through the museum. “The main fulfilment of your desire to see butterflies comes at the end.”
In the light, plant species from across the Americas and Asia provide habitats for butterflies, while caterpillars crawl through the soil. Here the special experience involves a winding path, an old architectural trick that leaves visitors perpetually waiting for what’s around the corner. The rewards are plentiful: a pair of small butterflies, fluttering past a white orchid, or an owl butterfly, hiding in camouflage against a dead leaf. They recall ideas of life and death, birth and growth, predation and survival.
The experience of moving through the museum spaces is inseparable from this conceptual journey. And it is remarkable that the idea of the design emerged intact from the process, including some unusual construction details. Those irregular underground chambers are made with concrete sprayed on in liquid form – a device employed by the Chicago architects Studio Gang at the American Museum of Natural History, which opened this year to significant fanfare from American and global press.
The Montreal competition was a tremendous success. In no other Canadian city would a public building be completed today with such a strong body of architectural and curatorial ideas.
Kuehn Malvezzi will be working again in Montreal soon: They recently won another competition, this time for the new museum of the private Phi Centre. That project, now in design, works with a complex site in old Montreal to deliver varied spaces for contemporary art, which Mr. Kuhn hopes will be among the most energy-efficient museum buildings in the country.
The Insectarium’s success bodes well for the Phi Centre building. Its trip from bottom to top and dark to light symbolizes growth and evolution, a rebirth of sorts. Even an adult, having walked through here, will experience a return, if not to childhood, then at least a state of childlike wonder.