View from the Hill: it’s a jumble out there

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.

8 comments

  1. “incidentally designed” is such a kind way to say “not designed at all” or perhaps “happened by accident.”

    When I visit other cities: Paris, Quebec city, and, to some extent, New York, I’m impressed by their grandeur. Those cities are filled with buildings and monuments to the culture and history of the people who live in them. The monument builders were proud of their history, and wanted others to experience that.

    Ottawa is short on that. We have a few small statues (the cenotaph, the monument to Canadian peace keepers, Champlain overlooking the river), and a few beautiful buildings (the Parliament buildings, the art gallery, and the war museum). But those are all buried in the no-man’s land of downtown. They’re far from the citizens of Ottawa. The only time we see our monuments is when we make a special trip to them. (Of course, Transitway riders get to see the Parliament buildings and the war museum on their way to the main event – the downtown snow dump near Tunney’s Pasture)

    I hope that changes. Perhaps our new library will tell something about our history, and have statues of great Canadians, or great intellectuals we lay claim to (I’d vote for Charles Darwin, Lester B. Pearson, Terry Fox, and Banting). Perhaps Spacing should run that as a contest?

    Maybe as downtown grows, and infill picks up (if it ever does), and if it’s something other than a developer-driven fiasco, we’ll end up with a plaza or two. It would be wonderful to see our history and our culture immortalized in a readily accessible public space.

  2. The south side of Wellington is a jumble of architectural styles.
    As opposed to that city, other than Pompeii, which isn’t?
    Which city is that, again?

  3. You’re very kind to Ottawa.  Back here after a year away, I get the sense of a city that aspires to mediocrity and to punch well below its weight.  Maybe I’m a bit deluded, but after seeing cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Bremen and Zurich over the past little while, all of which are about the size of Ottawa, I can’t help but think that we have a lack of interest as a city in being interesting as a city, of being a destination.  

    Your assertion that the waterfront is where to see the city is correct – but only if you consider Ottawa and not Gatineau (a potentially even grander failure in urban design).

    The unity and congruity of urban centres in other countries is quite striking (save Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm – that would fit in well in Ottawa, if we accepted that four stories is a good height). It would be great if we could aspire to that as a city, of having a true centre of the city, rather than the failed half-measures of Sparks St., etc…

  4. An architectural jumble can certainly be fun to look at from time to time. Ours has its own oddball attraction.

    There are moments, though, when I do think that some of the more recent additions to the cityscape look like something that escaped from Anton Furst or Barbara Ling’s studio drawing tables back when they were working on Bat-movies for Warner Brothers.

  5. The south side of Wellington is a jumble of architectural styles.
    As opposed to that city, other than Pompeii, which isn’t?
    Which city is that, again?
    Comment by W McLean
    December 16, 2009 | 6:37 pm

    venice, italy is very cohesive.
    contemporary athens, greece with its dominating 20th century typology of “polykatoikia” also.

  6. Venice is also a very old city, and frozen in time.

    Ottawa, architecturally, is less than 100 years old for the most part, and large parts of the city centre are in flux and will continue to be for some time.
    Oddly enough, thanks to the grass fetish and NIMBYism, the suburbs will probably look much the same as they do now, for decades: just look at many of the 1950s-onwards residential suburbs which have barely been touched since they went up.

  7. The real problem with Wellington is the NCC and Public Works. Forcing the Bank of Montreal out of its “temple of commerce” was a crime. The NCC has fetishized the “view” and “open space” of the old Rideau Club site, so that gap in the teeth will likely never be filled. The opportunity to fill the other gap, the former U.S. Embassy parking lot, was lost for a decade or more when the portrait museum was scrapped. The glass envelope part of the Bank of Canada is a street-killer. And another opportunity was blown (and the grass fetishists were only encouraged) when the federal court building, for the “temporary” park site west of the Supreme Court lawn and next to the Archives, was deleted from the books: a good chunk of the old Improvement Commission plan could have finally been built then and there.

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