I was walking with my out-of-town friend around Ottawa, when, at Parliament Hill my friend remarked that while the Parliament buildings were nice, Ottawa as a city had no sense of cohesion. I was shocked and defensive at first, but he gestured towards the cityscape in front of us and I had to swallow my civic pride. The south side of Wellington is a jumble of architectural styles. Snuggled together is the Second Empire style 1880s Langevin Building, a contemporary National Capital Commission INFOcentre, the 1930s neo-Classical Bank of Canada, enlarged with 1970s glass towers, and peaking out behind these buildings is the Ottawa Marriot with Ottawa’s one revolving restaurant.
Certainly, this skyline is influenced by policies beginning in 1910 that prevented buildings in a designated distance from Parliament to exceed the height of Parliament’s Peace Tower. Policies didn’t however regulate for architectural consistency.
It occurred to me later that we were looking at Ottawa from the wrong angle. Ottawa is not a city that naturally finds its identity in grand boulevards, despite what Ottawa’s chief urban planner from the 1930s-1970s Jacques Greber, and the National Capital Commission have suggested from time to time. And, incongruous as it may seem, it wasn’t designed to be admired from Parliament Hill.
Ottawa (and the National Capital) was, incidentally designed in a way that is most admirable from the point-of-view of Ottawa’s earliest inhabitants— the Ottawa River. The River was the main means of transportation and trade for the Algonquin and Odawa people. The River was the means of access for the French explorers and fur traders, and the River was the vital resource that allowed Ottawa to grow as a timber town in the 1800s.
Many of the National Capital’s crown jewels face and circle the River. Parliament Hill, the Supreme Court, the National Library and Archives, the Museum of Civilization, the War Museum, and Earnscliffe— the residence of the British High Commissioner, are all visible from Nepean Point, or standing in the middle of Alexandra Bridge. There is still a collage of architectural styles, mostly neo-gothic, neo-classical, International Bauhaus (the Library and Archives). But, there is a sense of order and conversation between them. The glass structure of the National Gallery, built in 1988, speaks to the gothic spire of the Library of Parliament while the river front offers a visual consistency of greenery.
Many, historically and to-this-day continue to compare Ottawa to Washington— Laurier famously pronounced that Ottawa was to be the “Washington of the North.” William Lyon McKenzie King’s ambitions to have a Champs Elysee-esque boulevard in Elgin Street suggested Ottawa emulate other global capitals like Paris. What these ambitions miss is the true quality of Ottawa’s capital feel, which can be felt, on Alexandra Bridge or somewhere in the middle of the River—unfortunately, not too accessible. It is fitting that the capital is designed to face and circle the River, which is rightfully its site of history and tradition. Even the Royals have a history with the River, many visiting Royals in the 19th century enjoyed a trip down the exhilarating timber slides.
The 1998 National Capital Commission “A Capital for Future Generations: Vision For the Core Area of Canada’s Capital Region.” seemed to contradictorily hit both of these feelings about Ottawa. The plan to create on the North end of Metcalfe Street a “Grand Boulevard of the Nation” inspired to raze a series of buildings to create a boulevard that would lead to the front of Parliament Hill. This plan, dubbed “Chretien’s Boulevard” was largely protested by the City of Ottawa and cancelled. The boulevard plan echoed this misguided understanding of Ottawa, and would have made slightly redundant the grand boulevard of Elgin for which the NCC and its institutional predecessors razed several buildings in the 1920s and 1930s.
Another idea of the NCC 1998 plan was to place a series of River shuttles to take people to the different sites along the River. This idea also, unfortunately did not see itself to fruition. Had the water taxis appeared however, many could have understand the best vantage point from which to understand Ottawa AS Canada’s capital.