Extreme (building) makeover: The legacy and opportunity of vacant office towers

Extreme (building) makeover: The legacy and opportunity of vacant office towers 

When I was a kid, CTV aired a show called Here Come the Seventies. It was thrilling — and not just because the opening credits featured the nude backside of a woman walking into the ocean. The program looked forward to the future with excitement, rather than the fear we now collectively practice.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ottawa was transformed by a large number of office buildings emblematic of this forward-looking period. Recently, the federal government and private industry have started to reconsider these structures — think of the Lester B. Pearson building, Place du Portage, and the old CBC Building on Bronson. I think it’s fair to say we have learned many things since these places were first conceived, such as the need for a convivial pedestrian environment, in ways that architects of the time were not interested in.

But I admire the muscularity and boldness of vision these projects embodied. These clients and architects had the courage of strong convictions — and the means to realize them. It is almost impossible to imagine any of the projects I have cited being realized today in such a dramatic manner.

This legacy is both problematic (lousy energy performance, for example) and an important opportunity: almost every one of these buildings has been, or will be, in need of reconstruction. Failing facades must be repaired or replaced; mechanical, electrical, and structural systems must be updated to meet design and sustainable design standards. And then there is the whole work-from-home conundrum. COVID has completely upended the demand for office space and has altered the vocation of “the office.”

These renovation projects offer exciting opportunities to reimagine these buildings. In many cases these transformations are extensive and demand the building be reconsidered as a whole. An extreme makeover, if you will.

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

As an architect, this situation presents interesting challenges. But it’s also an exciting moment in the city as we witness its metamorphosis. Office buildings are possibly the most important sites we work with today. We should think of them as man-made territories — valuable resources with huge potential and many positive attributes. For example, the buildings of the ’60s and ’70s are often situated near the core and existing transit; if we renovate them — rather than tear down and build anew — they are environmentally friendly. And they are readily accommodating of change, because they were designed to be that way. With well-proportioned floor areas that have good access to natural light, these buildings can become dwellings.This is a massive and important opportunity for the city. A tally of commercially owned buildings built between 1960 and 1980 in downtown Ottawa comes to almost seven million square feet of usable area. If we add federally owned properties, there is perhaps 10 million square feet of space to consider. That’s 50 acres within the core that’s in the process of redevelopment. A mere 10 per cent of this area could create 2,000 apartments.

When I was studying architecture, these were the buildings my classmates and I loved to hate. We thought they were boring and decried them as embodiments of corporate values and government malaise. But now I deeply appreciate them. I value the restraint and discipline that was put into architecture of the era; it often comes across as boring but is really very hard to pull off. At their best, they create a calm background to work and life that can be appreciated in our contemporary environment: filled with so much visual and mental noise, exacerbated today by building designs obsessed with novelty as a design principle. (Funky shapes and randomly disposed patterns are two symptoms of this disease.)

A department known as the Federal Heritage Building Review Office has protected many federally owned office buildings built approximately 50 years ago, but there is a continuing risk to the design integrity of many others. That’s because they don’t look like heritage buildings that demand care, so they are sometimes subjected to well-meaning interventions. Architects and politicians will describe them as “bunkers” when they want to destroy them. But their rehabilitation creates a fascinating cultural opportunity to engage with their designs in ways that both respect and challenge the tenets on which they were based.

Martin Tite is a principal and architect at GRC Architects, located in Ottawa. He lives with his wife in a ’70s apartment building.