In the dense forest of corporate buildings in downtown Ottawa, wouldn’t it be nice to distinguish one corner from another? Too many offer only the pre-requisite coffee shop or dry cleaner tucked inside a big glass wall.
One solution that enlivens urban centres is investment in corporate sculpture.
When I was young, I had the chance to go to Chicago on a school field trip. To an art student, downtown Chicago is the epitome of cool. It’s a city that appreciates art and urbanism. We took architecture walks down streets lined with architecture by the likes of Louis Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe and you couldn’t help but notice the large commissioned sculptures that proudly sit in front of many of the city’s big buildings.
It’s commonplace to give directions by saying: “Turn left at the big bat.” The “bat” being Batcolumn, a monumental grey skeleton of a baseball bat by pop artist Claes Oldenburg. Not only that, but people love the bat, gather and eat lunch in its shadow.
In Ottawa, people meet under the Louise Bourgeois spider, Maman. Tourists can’t leave without a photo under its spindly legs. Five years since it tip toed out in front of the building and the great controversy it stirred, the $3.2 million dollar investment made by the National Gallery of Canada has (I think) been worth every penny. It is now a signature piece in their collection and a calling card for the Ottawa landscape.
There are a few buildings that incorporate sculpture in the downtown core.
My new favourite is Minto Place’s – “Northshore”, by Noel Harding. As the photo above shows, it looks like a giant silver teapot; spout out, it points toward the intersection of Kent and Slater, stainless steel gleaming in the sunlight. Instead of a lid, there is an evergreen tree shooting into the sky and when the weather gets warmer, wild grass will pour from the spout. Northshore is a delight and adds humour to what would have been yet another desolate vacant cement court downtown.
Some sculptures are prominently displayed, such as Sorel Etrog’s winged embrace Flight Vol beside the Bank of Canada Currency Museum. Then there are others that are less prominent and wait for you to find them like the crouching hunter aiming his bow and arrow over the entrance of 55 Metcalfe’s Manulife Place at a deer in the opposing hedgerow. (Does anyone know the name of this one?)
There are even some real estate developments that have decided to enhance their façade with sculpture. Opus condominiums by Ashcroft Homes on the corner of Metcalfe and McLeod purchased Paso Doble by artist Bruce Garner. David Choo President of Ashcroft Homes was recently quoted in the Centretown News this January as saying that: “It was like the icing on the cake for this building,” and that he viewed the sculpture as a gift from his company to the city.
Owning a piece of art that is outdoors and on display for the public is a serious commitment that goes way beyond the initial investment. There are annual maintenance costs, pigeon patrol, and graffiti alerts for starters.
But, a well-chosen piece can be a real source of pride for a building. It can become a point on a map, a gathering place, a cultural calling card, and something wonderful for tourists (and residents alike) to discover.
Discovery of public art in urban centres is one of its great joys. Many creative cities are embracing public art as a real highlight of what their city has to offer.
I hope more corporate and residential properties consider making a gift of public art to Ottawa.
And I hope that more people will find their way around the city by “turning left at the teapot.”
photo by Jeremie Deschenes