Beaux arts and brutalism reimagined on the Ottawa architecture scene
Canada’s national capital is a theatrical set piece of symbolic real estate, with Parliament Hill, Confederation Square and the Senate all within a few hundred metres of each other. Here architecture is a performative act.
Ottawa is both a capital city where broad strokes of Canadian identity loom large – a nightly summer light show on Parliament Hill called the ‘Story of Canada’ highlights the nation’s multiculturalism and differences with its southern neighbour – and a growing community of a million people christening its first LRT (Light Rail Transit) ‘Confederation Line’ this summer.
Bureaucrats have long been the gate keepers of the city, where government remains the main employer, closely followed by high tech and (post Trudeau’s legalisation of marijuana), Big Cannabis. Several recent projects (partly legacies of Canada’s sesquicentennial) have attempted to contemporise and democratise the Victorian and beaux arts buildings that house national institutions. As the late 19th century Parliament building journeys through a two decade, multi-billion dollar series of renovations, and a fall election looms, architecture is taking centre stage.
Across from the neo-French gothic Chateau Laurier, a castle like old railway hotel on the other side of the canal from Parliament Hill (whose proposed new addition has sparked controversy among conservationists), the new Senate by Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects leads the way. Completed this spring, it transformed a 1912 railway station (still connected via underground tunnels to the Chateau that has housed heads of states for decades) turned conference centre in the 1970s – into a temporary home for the Senate. The project modernises the building while honouring its gorgeous beaux arts bones, breathing new life into what was once a moribund institution.
The same principles of openness and transparency governed the Diamond Schmitt Architects’ 2017 renovation of the brutalist National Arts Centre, whose original 1969 hexagonal geometry is seamlessly extended into a new addition wrapped in glass that offers increased public space and a series of break out performance areas and informal stages, including a see through street level cabaret space.
The new cathedral like lounge area with soaring ceilings – scented with the aroma of the BC pine that comprises its walls and flooring – is literally and metaphorically connected to the old Canadian Shield inspired concrete walled building by a bridge. It offers the perfect perch – with framed views of Parliament and surrounding buildings – from which to contemplate the whole idea of Canada.
Below, discover the practices and projects that are shaping Ottawa’s architectural future...