Sculpture set to trump theatre at Nepean Point?

Astrolabe Theatre: No more postcard views under Champlain's statue?

One of Ottawa’s outdoor performance spaces, the Astrolabe Theatre—a legacy of the 1967 Centennial celebrations—is slated for demolition by the NCC this summer, and it’s unclear what exactly is to replace it.

Behind the National Gallery of Canada lies Nepean Point, which boasts arguably the best view in Ottawa, overlooking the Ottawa River and the Alexandra Bridge to Québec. At the crest of the hill stands a statue of Samuel de Champlain erected in 1915 to celebrate the tricentennial of his exploration of the area. He holds aloft (upside down, and incorrectly) an astrolabe—a device used to make navigational calculations based on the position of the sun and stars (the forerunner of today’s handheld GPS devices). It is from this that the amphitheatre situated on the side of the hill facing the Parliament buildings takes its name. It was built as a vantage point for the sound and light show on Parliament Hill, and used for many decades as for concerts and other performances.

You could be forgiven for not knowing it’s there—and therein lies part of the problem.

In a May 11th interview with Alan Neal of CBC Radio One’s All In A Day, Jean Wolff (NCC Senior Manager, Media Relations) cited the site’s inaccessibility, a lack of demand for it as a performance space, and the presence of lead paint and asbestos in its dressing room area as reasons why the neglected structure is to be torn down. According to the Ottawa Citizen , one million dollars has been budgeted for the demolition project.

The NCC has some valid points. The amphitheatre is only accessible on foot; about a 500 metre walk from the main entrance of the Gallery. It shows no signs of recent use, and the benches are in disrepair. There’s no doubt that the structure underneath the hill, built in the 60s, is filled with hazardous materials. But why not restore and maintain the space, if its demolition is going to run up a million-dollar bill?

The answer may be at the end of a one-hundred-foot line.

Between Astrolabe Theatre and the National Gallery of Canada, a tortuous spike of stainless steel stretches from the grass of Nepean Point one hundred feet into the sky. One Hundred Foot Line, a sculpture by New York artist Roxy Paine, was unveiled in October 2010. The plan to acquire the sculpture (which cost one-eighth of the Gallery’s annual acquisition budget ) was announced in January 2010 as part of a project to revamp Nepean Point—an arrangement of mutual benefit between the NCC and the Gallery. There was talk of establishing a sculpture garden; something the NGC lacks which most other national art galleries have. At the time of the original announcement , Linda Dicaire (NCC Chief of Federal Design Approval, Heritage, and Archaeology) went on the record as saying that there would be a design for a new amphitheatre as part of the redevelopment project.

According to Wolff, that’s no longer part of the plan… but we haven’t been told what is; only that the area’s “visual appeal” will be made its focal point, that the statue of Champlain will stay, and that fireworks will still be set off from Nepean Point on Canada Day.

Visual appeal? Perhaps the Gallery is getting their sculpture garden after all.

Andrew Snowdon is a freelance writer and theatre reviewer who has called Ottawa home since 1983.

-photo by Douglas Sprott

5 comments

  1. I’ve always loved that spot. It’s too bad more theatre and concerts couldn’t have used the space. It really is one of the nicest spots in Ottawa.

    I hope they don’t replace it with something dire…

  2. Its frustrating the NCC feels this is a process that needs to remain secret. Would the cost of removing the asbestos and renovating the structure cost more than its demolition?

  3. Wow. This is an outrageously shortsighted and foolish decision. I certainly agree the site is underused, but isn’t that the NCC’s fault, since they are the ones with the authority to program it? That amphitheatre has the potential to truly be one of the most spectacular outdoor venues in the world, a destination with extraordinary appeal, if only it were programmed and maintained. The National Gallery is crazy to let it be destroyed when they could use it to greatly increase their local relevance as a cultural institution. Why should it not very happily co-exist with a sculpture gallery? It makes no sense. Argh.

    I suggest Spacing should start a petition to try to force the NCC and NGC tosave and refurbish this unique venue rather than demolish it.

  4. Before any demolition takes place the NCC should formulate (and make public) what they plan to do next. However, it seems lately their biggest initiative is complete inaction and lack of vision. Don’t tear down tourist attracxtions if you haven’t figured out what will replace them. Maybe the NCC should be replaced – or at least reformed.

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