Mies van der Rohe Gas Station

Mies van der Rohe Gas Station 1970s, image credit Displaced Montrealer.

Mies van der Rohe Esso Gas Station before renovation by FABG Architects, image credit Bass Kegge/Flickr.

Mies van der Rohe Esso Gas Station before renovation by FABG Architects, image credit Bass Kegge/Flickr.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Nuns' Island Gas Station, 1969

The Nun's Island gas station is a modernist-style filling station designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1969, one of four buildings by Mies van der Rohe in Nuns' Island, located in the city of Montreal. It was the first filling station on the island, and the first designed by Mies van der Rohe, who had worked in collaboration with local architect Paul H. Lapointe on the project. The station was commissioned by Imperial Oil and was later transformed into an Esso station. Nun’s Island is part of the Hochelaga archipelago located immediately southwest of Montreal. It's urbanization followed the opening of the Champlain bridge in 1962 under an ambitious master plan carried out by Metropolitan Structures, a real estate giant who had built numerous projects in Chicago with the collaboration of Mies van der Rohe. The new community included three high rise apartment buildings by Mies office and it led, in 1966, to a commission from Standard Oil to design a prototypical gas station.

The station consists of two distinct volumes, one for car servicing and the other for sales, with a central pump island covered by a low steel roof that unifies the composition. The beams and columns were made of welded steel plates painted black that contrast with the white enamelled steel deck and bare fluorescent tubes.

Over the years, the interiors have been modified to incorporate a car wash on the sales side, the finishes, built-in furniture and equipment have been replaced and the custom made pumps removed. It ceased to be commercially operated in 2008 and the city of Montreal listed it as a heritage building in 2009 before initiating the project of a youth and senior activity centre. This simple program requires an open space for each group to congregate and participate in communal activities.

The first architectural task was to meticulously restore the envelope of the building by dismantling and repairing the corroded curtain wall, repointing the brick work and repainting the structure. The second architectural task was to develop strategies for the new mechanical and electrical needs that would not affect the integrity of the heritage values. We choose to implement solutions originating from the sustainable development field of research to achieve this goal. The new geothermal wells under the asphalt around the building provide the major part of the energy required to operate the building but they also radically diminish the size of the equipment and eliminate the need for a cooling tower on the roof of the building. The new stainless steel gas pumps are in fact air in take and out take devices that are linked by underground ducts to the HVAC system. They replace the louvers that we would have had to install on the building and this solution contributes to the pre-cooling or heating of the fresh air admitted , the canadian well effect.

The third task was to radicalize the building with the new interventions in order to emphasize its inherent qualities and the essential values that it embodies. Formal unity and simplicity is enhanced by making everything black (teenagers side) or white (elders side). The strength of the roof as a unifying device is reinforced by using the same rhythm of linear fluorescent lighting into the interior spaces (T-5 tubes on dimmers). Transparency is augmented by opening completely the view from one end to the other on the long axis and by using low-iron glass. Specific uses and functions have been integrated into freestanding built-in units that are formally mute to dissimulate the contingencies of daily life.

According to the architects, the project is not about the faithful restoration of a monument. It is an interpretation trying to touch and communicate the essence of an artistic vision formulated by someone else in response to a world that is no longer the same.

Image Credits: Steve Montpetit for FABG Architectes.