The Metamorphosis of the Montreal Insectarium is a project by Kuehn Malvezzi, Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architects, along with landscape architects Atelier le Balto. Their captivating design aims to transform the public’s relationship with insects.

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Zig-zag building facade with a sloped pollinator garden outside

The building opened up in April 2022 after seven years of design and construction and replaced the previous insectarium from 1990. The Insectarium forms part of Espace pour la Vie, also called Space for Life. It is Canada’s largest natural science museum complex and features five components: The Insectarium, Biodome, Biosphere, Botanical Gardens and Planetarium. The immersive space received the 2023 Grand Prix d’excellence en architecture from the Ordre des architectes du Québec because of its creative solutions to technical challenges and synergy between architecture and landscape.

Related: Massive Biodome Upgrade Unveiled for Montreal’s 1979 Olympic Park

Two children crawling through a tunnel

Redefining the traditional museum experience

While the insectarium’s design builds on historical buildings that display components of the natural world, such as museums, orangeries and greenhouses, this project subverts typical museum experiences and norms. For example, in the insectarium, displays are in-built in the design of the building. This is done by displaying the Insectarium’s preserved insect collection in two horizontal bands built into the wall. The first band organizes the insects by color, while the second band sorts them by their evolutionary successes. 

Three children and two adults watching themselves through a pixelated screen

Additionally, the space features a curated route that allows visitors to be immersed in the space through vivid sensory experiences and barrier-free displays. Each visitor starts and ends their journey in the Pollinator Garden. Next, they move through the Labyrinth, which leads to the six Perceptual Alcoves underground.

Man looking at a display two rows of insects

The Perceptual Alcoves are six rooms designed to disorient human senses and mimic the sensorial experiences and movements of insects. For example, the first room simulates the pixelated vision of a fly, while another amplifies vibrations to match the sonics of a grasshopper. Another room allows guests to climb up on sticks, while the next room forces visitors to squeeze through tiny spaces, much like creepy crawlies do. Next, visitors can experience the world like a bee by viewing the world through simulated UV vision. Finally, the last room turns the space upside down visually as if the visitors are insects crawling on the ceiling.

Cave-like space with blue flowers projected onto the floor

The walk-through ends at the Tête-à-tête Gallery, which provides people with a close-up view of insects in different habitats, housed in custom-built viewing boxes. Upon re-emerging from the basement-level spaces, visitors are guided into the Grand Vivarium. This is a light-filled greenhouse that features a variety of micro-climates to house various plants and insects. Many insects, including butterflies and caterpillars, move around freely in this space without barriers. Other more predatory insects, such as scorpions, giant centipedes and leaf-cutter ants are featured in glass cases. These vivaria integrate seamlessly into the design of the Grand Vivarium’s botanical landscape.

Greenhouse with paths encircling clusters of plants

Sustainable design strategies

The Insectarium is designed to incorporate various systems and sustainable practices to support its bioclimatic approach. One such example is orienting the greenhouse volume to the south to capture immense amounts of sunlight and warm the interiors. Using advanced mechanical systems, heat generated here is also distributed to other parts of the building. Other systems include textile shades, geothermal wells, motorized louvers and rainwater harvesting facilities. In further alignment with the approach, the project uses local, sustainable and VOC-free materials throughout. In fact, because of its multifaceted approach to sustainable educational design, the building has been submitted to the U.S. Green Building Council to acquire LEED Gold certification.

+ Espace pour la Vie – Montréal

Photography by James Brittain — Kuehn Malvezzi / Pelletier de Fontenay / Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architectes in consortium