Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Architects used images filmed by the inventor in 1901 to bring life to an apartment building's flat facade.
On a cold day in March of 1901, Thomas Edison filmed Montreal's fire department rolling down a snow-covered street. It wasn't a particularly captivating film, just a continuous shot of horse-drawn carriages with members of the city's fire-fighting crew in tow. But over a century later, the film has found new life as the face of Montreal's newest student apartment building.
The Edison Residence, designed by local architecture firm KANVA, is an infill project just completed near McGill University. Built on what had been a vacant parcel since the house that once stood there burned down in the early 20th century, the architects used Edison's film as a way of referencing the site's own history while cleverly playing with notoriously unplayful concrete.
Photoengraving stills from Montreal Fire Department on Runners (1901) onto the building's concrete panels brings an unexpected jolt of life to a material few would chose over the bricks and stones that define many of the Edison Building's neighbors. It makes the structure inescapably engaging.
According to the architects, the film stills move in and out of focus as people walk by (they refer to it as "animated architecture"). When viewed up close, the facade asks you to contemplate the city's history captured in the film. From a distance, the images become more abstract, lending an almost weathered look to the building. To complement the design, windows along the front of the building are screen-printed with stills from the film.
Older concrete buildings face an uncertain future; repairs to them are costly, and the public has limited admiration for their design. The material itself, however, isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, a process like photoengraving may be just the trick to give the harsh material a new mass appeal in this century.
Most examples of photoengraved concrete are limited to a single wall of a public space (like Quebec City's Promenade Samuel-De Champlain) or a section of a facade (like Gutenberg-Höfe in Heidelberg, Germany). With the Edison Building, the three-story residential structure's entire face gets the treatment. The use of historic, local imagery has a truly disarming effect.
Just as impressively, KANVA has managed to introduce a new generation of Montrealers to long-forgotten images of their city—courtesy of one of the most important innovators of his time.