At Montreal’s Insectarium, visitors are immersed in the world of insects
Mistakes are not for everyone. I personally have gone through intense periods of fear of cockroaches. So it’s a bit surprising that what I enjoyed most during my recent trip to Montreal was at the city’s Insectarium, where I looked into the eyes of the largest cockroach I’ve ever seen. Designed by Berlin-based architects Kuehn Malvezzi and local firms Pelletier de Fontenay and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte Architects, the newly redesigned 38,750-square-foot Insectarium aims to “redefine our relationship with insects.” Since insects account for 85% of animal diversity, perhaps the time has come.
While the giant cockroach is behind a glass barrier (thank goodness), other spaces throughout the building allow visitors to get up close and personal with the creatures, and even include immersive sensory experiences that mimic insect perception, such as alcoves that mimic the narrow passageways cockroaches can crawl through the pixelated vision of a fly. With 3,000 preserved insect specimens, 175 living insect species, and 3,000 plant specimens, it is the largest insect museum in North America. To experience the building, you walk a tightly designed path that begins in the outdoor pollinator garden and gradually introduces visitors to the indoor galleries, creative workshops and a majestic greenhouse where they can experience up to 80 species of butterflies year-round in a lush, barrier-free environment.
One of the most impressive features is the color collection – a wall of preserved insects arranged by colour. The set is housed in a cavernous domed hall resembling a planted hill and the viewer is surrounded by a shotcrete interior that appears like an underground labyrinth. The dome can be seen from the outside through the landscape surrounding the Botanical Garden, and a few years from now, it will be covered in plant life.
Once visitors pass through the dark-domed hall, they experience another shift in perception as they begin a slow ascent into the large, sunlit greenhouse, which features a gradually sloping path through a range of microclimates. While the building’s location makes the most of natural light, advanced mechanical systems allow much of the heat generated by the greenhouse to be redistributed to the rest of the building. A host of additional systems—such as fabric shades, motorized vents, geothermal wells, roof water recovery, and the use of local, zero-VOC materials—help the building achieve its LEED Gold certification goals.
Throughout the space, the architects wanted to “challenge the idea of biophilia being anthropocentric” and reveal that the history of natural history museums cannot be separated from the history of environmental exploitation. For Wilfried Kuhn, it is about power. In a conversation published by the museum with the director of the Insectarium, Maxime Larrivie, Kuhn said: “(As architects) our mission is to advocate for people who are underrepresented or those who are not responsible. This is what prompted us to question the insect as part of the spatial experience and make sure that it has an environment that does not violate it.” And don’t treat them like objects. I left the museum feeling humbled and in awe, wanting to give some power back to the cockroaches.
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