Construction of the National Assembly of Quebec’s New Visitor Centre: Redesigning the Visitor Experience
Rachel Plante is the Civic Programming Coordinator in the Visitor Services and Educational Mission Directorate at the National Assembly.
In 2016 the National Assembly of Quebec undertook the largest construction project since it was first built between 1877 and 1886. Accessibility concerns were central when the Assembly designed its award-winning visitor centre. In this article, the author outlines the project’s scope and the carefully crafted meaning behind some of the new centre’s elements.
Building the Centre: A Meaningful Experience
In 2016, the National Assembly of Quebec launched the largest construction project involving the Parliament Building since it was first built between 1877 and 1886. The reason behind the expansion project, which finished in 2019, was to make the premises more accessible to Quebeckers and tourists and to add spaces for parliamentary proceedings. The new underground centre, which is separate from the Parliament Building, has modern reception facilities to allow staff to provide an optimized visitor experience and carry out better security screenings.
The 5,100-m2 centre also includes a multi-purpose room and an agora, which have enabled the National Assembly to completely redesign its visitor experience. The visitor centre will also host a new educational tour that is adapted to all visitors and will help Quebeckers get better acquainted with their Parliament.
An Architectural Design that Combines Past and Present
Reaffirming the national motto
Je me souviens [I remember] is the concept on which the Parliament Building was founded. By adding these three simple yet eloquent words under Quebec’s coat of arms, Eugène-Étienne Taché gave meaning to his work. Taché’s building design invites Quebeckers to commemorate their heroes and their history.
Therefore, it seems only natural that the new visitor experience would honour Taché’s vision for the Parliament Building. As soon as visitors enter the centre, they are greeted with the National Assembly’s signature message, Je me souviens, engraved on a steel wall. The stage is set for visitors to remember that they are standing where the Quebec they know today has been built since the late 19th century. This commemorative design also inspires them to think about the historical importance of the National Assembly as a place that has shaped Quebec through the debates, struggles, decisions and compromises that have taken place within its walls.
In the 19th century, Taché designed a pantheon of major figures from Quebec’s history to adorn the Parliament Building’s main facade. After more than a century, the centre’s architects wanted to preserve the building’s heritage and its magnificent facade that tells the story of Quebec’s history. So, they decided to continue Taché’s work in a different way. Inside the centre, a long wall of microperforated wood includes imagery that visitors can enjoy over the course of their tour. This imagery is steeped in meaning and presents stories that showcase Quebec’s fundamental values and characteristics: diversity, the French language and its French roots, equality, northernness, Indigenous heritage, openness to the world, natural resources and the vastness of the land.
With its modern features, the visitor centre demonstrates that, even though the National Assembly is rooted in a tradition that draws on old British customs and practices, it is and must absolutely be cemented in the present. As a result, visitors become aware that a parliament is not a place that is frozen in time; rather, it is a forward-looking, dynamic institution that is constantly evolving.
Meaningful architecture for an enhanced experience
The architecture creates a dialogue between heritage and modernity that speaks to everyone. The agora’s pale design and sober atmosphere evokes the political neutrality of the National Assembly, while the neighbouring spaces are painted in vibrant and contrasting colors. Since reference points are crucial underground, visitors will be able to know when they are under the National Assembly Chamber (the Salon bleu [blue room]) and the Legislative Council Chamber (the Salon rouge [red room]) by looking at the corresponding colours on the wall.
Another constant theme in the visitor centre’s design is the circle. And this is no coincidence, because the circle symbolizes the agora as an emblem of Athenian democracy and the ideal of equality. The visitor centre is a central and meaningful space that invites visitors to understand their role in the political and civic sphere. They will also be stunned by the large circular skylight’s magnificent view on the Central Tower, which is located just above the zero-kilometre marker that positions the tower as a geographical and symbolic landmark for everyone.
The passageway between the visitor centre and the National Assembly above it inspires visitors to think about the importance of democratic institutions. This tunnel, which was dug under the Parliament Building’s main facade, showcases artist Jonathan Villeneuve’s piece The Spectrum of Enlightenment. Visitors walking through the tunnel will be immersed in an enchanting visual and sonic experience, and moved by the artwork’s full gamut of colours and sounds. Its title is an obvious reference to the Western Enlightenment, which provided a groundswell of new philosophical, political, social, scientific and artistic teachings. Beyond this symbolism, The Spectrum of Enlightenment pays tribute to the different shades of opinion expressed during debates in the Chamber. The tunnel is a link between modernity and memory and guides visitors to the entrance of the Parliament Building, which is the key destination of the tour.
Visitor Experience: Diverse Content for a Diverse Audience
The stage is now set for the National Assembly to use the centre’s large, symbolic space to present a full range of activities. Visitors can stop by various installations that are guaranteed to give them a rich, meaningful and pleasant experience. This tour segment is the product of the know-how and expertise of the National Assembly’s internal teams.
Whether they are with a tour guide or alone, visitors will be able to better understand the National Assembly’s role, expand their knowledge and understanding of democratic processes, appreciate the rich history and heritage of the Parliament Building and consider opportunities for civic participation.
A digital, multimedia approach
Visitors are invited to use the touch screens with educational and entertaining content, which includes interactive animations, games, videos and tools showcasing parliamentarism, political life and democracy.
Once the National Assembly reopens to the general public after the pandemic is over, visitors will be able to take self-guided digital tours using their mobile device. All they have to do is listen in to the audio guide, which is available in French and English and will also provide visitors with additional content, including photos and videos.
New audiovisual installations enhance the tour. In the reception area, people can contemplate images of Quebec and view a wall of screens showing videos and photos illustrating the geographical diversity of its 17 administrative regions in all four seasons. Further on, the National Assembly presents its very own film, Confluence, in the multi-purpose room, which highlights how important the National Assembly is for society, brings the building to life and creates a sense of pride and belonging. Lastly, the agora’s vast projector area screens videos on various themes. Since the visitor centre first opened, the feature video has showcased the cultures and heritage of Quebec’s Indigenous Peoples.
One of the objectives of redesigning the visitor experience was to make information that is useful for public, institutional and parliamentary activities more accessible. Information screens are placed at strategic locations throughout the tour. At the entrance, visitors are shown tour schedules, upcoming activities, information on the flags being flown, service hours and so on. Screens behind the registration desk present a detailed schedule of institutional activities—akin to a menu—as well as information on services, guided tours, and more. Lastly, two screens next to the new parliamentary committee rooms display their daily schedules and information on upcoming proceedings.
Personalized educational tours
The guided tours were updated to better meet the needs of different groups. The general public tour has been updated to fit the new spaces, and the tours and workshops for elementary and high school students were reviewed to align themselves with the Quebec Education Program. In addition, new themed tours have been added for the Library, which is now more easily accessible, and the gardens and grounds.
Themed exhibition areas are spread out across the tour. The visitor centre features two displays on Quebec City’s parliamentary buildings and the construction of the Parliament Building. One floor below, curious visitors can visit an alcove that includes a time capsule that will be sealed until 2092 (to be opened on the 300th anniversary of Quebec’s first election) and is generally time-themed with the inclusion of hourglasses, clocks and so on. Another nearby exhibition focuses on how bills are introduced and become laws. Interestingly, progress for women is illustrated through the pro-equality laws adopted by the National Assembly. In the Library, which is now linked to the tour by a tunnel, visitors can stop by the curiosity cabinets and be amazed by what is inside them.
The main building features an exhibition on the Parliament Building and its designer, Eugène-Étienne Taché. A transparent model gives visitors a glimpse into the building’s interior and most important rooms. Then, another room showcases the general theme of civic participation by presenting ways everyone can contribute to citizen and parliamentary action in Quebec.
A souvenir shop that is worth the detour
At the end, visitors can stop by La Boutique and discover a wide variety of items that showcase Quebec’s terroir and its creators’ works, talents and skills. All of its treasures are elegantly displayed in the souvenir shop’s semi-circle layout.
Civic Programming for Institutional Recognition
The inauguration of the visitor centre in 2019 positioned the National Assembly as a modern, living and accessible institution. In addition to updating its tour, the National Assembly introduced civic programming, which includes an annual calendar of free public events. This programming brings the visitor centre to life and allows visitors to know more about the National Assembly and what it does for Quebec.
To offer activities that represent Quebeckers and cement the National Assembly’s role as a real community partner, the National Assembly issues public calls for projects every year. Through its calendar of events, the National Assembly supports current and future generations of programming talent and provides spaces for expressing diversity. In addition, these events allow for partnerships with museums, universities, arts organizations and more. Lastly, they help the National Assembly to promote initiatives from across Quebec.
In an effort to meet the needs and interests of as many people as possible, the National Assembly offers annual programming on various themes (arts, culture, society, politics, science, the environment, youth, education, health and so on). This programming can take on various forms, such as conferences, round tables, exhibitions, screenings, workshops and artistic events.
To date, the events have illustrated the National Assembly’s desire to position itself as an essential destination in the national capital and a true civic space, as reflected by the following activities: the Quebec City Film Festival, a photography exhibition on the theme of paternal leave in partnership with the FIKA(S) festival, the Des œuvres qui donnent des ailes [uplifting artworks] exhibition in support of the Fondation Maison Dauphine, which helps vulnerable youth, and the installation of Sommet de la montagne [mountain peak] on the forecourt of the Parliament Building as part of the Passages insolites [unconventional passageways] urban art trail.
A Construction Project, Better Communication and a Much-needed Redesign
The initial reasoning for building a visitor centre was pragmatic, because additional space was needed for parliamentary proceedings. Now, there are two additional modern parliamentary committee rooms, equipped with the latest broadcasting technology, to meet the needs of parliamentarians. In honour of gender equality, the National Assembly named these two rooms after prominent parliamentarians Marie-Claire Kirkland, who in 1961 became the first woman to be elected to provincial office, and Pauline Marois, who was Quebec’s first woman premier, from 2012 to 2014.
Then, the visitor experience became central to the project, as there was a desire to create spaces for locals and tourists alike. These spaces now offer a broad range of activities that suit a wide array of guests and promise them a more meaningful experience.
Lastly, as in most parliaments, security has become a fundamental issue. State-of-the-art security devices protect parliamentarians and visitors from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave the parliamentary precinct.
Above all, the National Assembly has successfully reaffirmed its heritage and historical value by bringing Eugène-Étienne Taché’s work and motto into the 21st century. It has also succeeded in redefining its civic identity and image so that Quebeckers can view it as an open, expressive, emblematic and living institution. This transformation, which implicitly sought to inspire pride, not only makes this feeling surface in visitors and staff, but also shows that the institution, although rooted in the past, is by all means modern and brought to life by the aspirations and interests of Quebeckers.
From now on, the National Assembly will take on a new personality, which, in addition to helping it accomplish its fundamental roles, will enable it to truly fulfill its mission of civic education, thereby making it a true civic space for all Quebeckers.