Design

Modern Love: a sleek River Road home, an airy U of O atrium, and a striking hangar

This photoessay first appeared in the 2020 Interiors edition of Ottawa Magazine

When a glass addition to the Château Laurier was proposed last year, the reaction felt like a rejection of modernism. While the city’s process was far from perfect, it’s worth noting the beauty of bold lines.

When we consider the changing nature of Ottawa architecture, the Daly Building serves as a milestone. When it opened in 1905 at Rideau and Mackenzie, many scoffed at its rejection of the picturesque and Victorian styles. Influenced by the Chicago School of Architecture, the store exemplified the tension between traditional and new. More recent examples include the PSAC building (1969) and the Arthur Erickson addition to the Bank of Canada building (1979). Although now hailed as landmarks, each garnered controversy and was certainly not embraced by all.

Related: Bold, beautiful designs reveal Ottawa’s thriving modern architecture scene

Here, we explore three examples of modern architecture — a private residence on River Road, the Social Sciences building at the University of Ottawa, and the reserve hangar at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum — that serve as examples of good craftsmanship, cohesive design, and functional resolve, and show the power and potential of modern architecture. All have made a notable mark on the city’s built fabric, revealing a modern city with excellent architecture spilling far beyond Parliament Hill.

North River Road residence
Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. | 2011

The “L” shaped plan of the residence turns its back to the non-descript towers along the Vanier Parkway. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

This house sits between a busy parkway and city parkland along the Rideau River, where downtown converges with the neighbourhoods of Vanier and New Edinburgh. The residence, designed by Toronto-based architect Ian MacDonald, replaced a nondescript suburban home and marks a critical addition to the architectural landscape as it subverts the traditional layout of a residential home. 

The L-shaped plan turns its back to the busy parkway with a tall masonry wall that provides a sound barrier and creates an impressive space for displaying art. The rest of the exterior gives few clues as to what’s inside. The two-vehicle carport creates distance between a hidden courtyard and the passersby along North River Road, and a large window parallel to the road offers a glimpse of the interior; otherwise, the interior remains concealed. 

The sunken entry, located off a narrow path beside the carport, leads to a ramp dividing the private wing and the courtyard. A frosted-glass wall, displaying an exquisite collection of glassware, separates the living space from the gently sloped hallway. Opposite the glass wall, recessed window frames encourage visitors to pause as the courtyard is slowly revealed.

These interior views show the centre of the home where a sloped hallway meets the kitchen. The thin steel columns, seen in both images, are typical of Ian MacDonald’s architecture. Photos by Nico Valenzuela

It is not until one reaches the kitchen at the end of the hallway located deep within the home that the layout is fully disclosed. The kitchen opens up to the main living area, offering views of the courtyard, the green roof of the carport, and the river. These continuous reveals, difficult to incorporate into small-scale residential projects, mark the strength and ingenuity of this building.

The kitchen, located at the junction of the L-shaped home, connects the two wings while adding to the ongoing compression and expansion of spaces. The kitchen’s low ceiling further distinguishes the room and links the private quarters — a sunken living room and large master suite — with the shared spaces. There are several other areas of retreat, including a study and the guest quarters, each accessible by its own staircase.

A raised courtyard off the principal living space allows for an unobstructed view of the nearby park and river. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Custom furniture, including built-in couches, exemplifies an overwhelming care for detail and design. At the heart of the success of this home is the architect’s ability to listen to the client’s needs and to the demands of the site. As a result, movement, orientation, and views are established, creating a sensitive interior space, stunning art displays, and a never-ending reveal of both architectural details and framed views.

Social Sciences Building, University of Ottawa
Diamond Schmitt Architects | 2012
120 University Lane

The entrance canopy, which houses a theatre and a reception hall, makes a dramatic architectural statement on University Square. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

The Social Sciences Building, constructed on a small irregular lot in the heart of the University of Ottawa campus, was designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects in association with KWC Architects. The building brings under one roof the faculty’s 10,000 students, 260 professors, and 100 staff. Furthermore, the new structure functions as a crossroads given its prominent location on University Square and proximity to the new uOttawa LRT station. When seen from the Rideau Canal, the Social Sciences Building marks an important addition to the campus as it unifies the university’s western facade, linking the shorter buildings located further south with the tall student residences situated to its north.

The building’s curved-glass corner wall along the LRT tracks immediately offers visual interest; while unbecoming to the rest of the building’s angular language, it provides a stunning interior workspace on each of the seven floors, bringing to mind the Flatiron skyscraper in New York City.

The dramatic main entrance, a slanted cantilever jutting some 12 metres from the facade, houses a theatre and reception hall with soaring ceilings. The space is an appropriate response to the slanted facade of nearby Montpetit Hall and provides a new focal point for University Lane, which is a key pedestrian artery. Also, when approached from the south, the canopy appears to be part of the adjacent Vanier Hall since it functions as the entrance to the Social Sciences Building.

The atrium, covered with cherrywood panels, allows for a seamlessly integrated space with Vanier Hall. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Central to the configuration of the interior are the two atriums: one contains a massive living wall spanning the entire height of the six-storey space and supplies much of the building’s fresh-air intake; the other creates a seamlessly integrated space with the renovated Vanier Hall dating from 1954. Wood is used predominantly in high-traffic areas, with cherrywood panels lining the atrium shared with Vanier Hall. Throughout, the building provides generous classrooms, intimate workstations, and light-filled collaborative rooms. The glass tower downplays the building’s mass and provides stunning views of the National Arts Centre and Parliament Hill.

Reserve Hangar
Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
Architecture 49 + Provencher Roy | 2005
11 Aviation Parkway

The simple lines of the hangar provide a dramatic addition to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Photo by Nico Valenzuela


The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has a vast collection of artifacts that includes over 100 aircraft. It needed a place to properly store and display them, and in 2005 the Reserve Hangar opened to serve this purpose. Designed by Architecture49 in collaboration with Provencher Roy, the new building added 8,200 square metres of storage space and provides a striking addition to the facility.

The architectural language used for this building is simple and effective. Essentially, the building is one massive rectangular shape, complete with two large sliding doors that cover the building’s entire length. The doors permit movement of the aircraft from the hangar to the Rockcliffe Airport. Its glazed facade, facing the Aviation Parkway, is the building’s most distinct feature and dramatically increases the museum’s visibility from the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway.

The large window facing the parkway cuts the front facade at a severe angle and falls inward, immediately revealing the purpose of the building, as some of the aircraft stored inside are visible to people passing by. The upper portion, clad in reflective metal, juts forward, creating a dynamism associated with flight as the overhanging volume forms a wing-like shape.

The industrial theme continues throughout the interior, as unobscured floor space allows for display and storage of the museum’s large collection. For example, public tours of the building include glimpses of the wing tips of the Avro Arrow, the “King Beaver” flown during the first overland crossing of Antarctica, and the Quickie, an American single-seater sold as a complete kit (including an engine) intended to be built at home.

The Reserve Hangar is the first element of the museum’s long-term architectural plan. Unified under one cohesive design, the proposed plan includes an administrative wing, a library and documentation centre added to the original 1988 building, and a tunnel with exhibition and programming spaces connecting the two.