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

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

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.

Here, we explore three examples of modern architecture — the Library and Archives Preservation Centre in Gatineau, the National Holocaust Monument, and the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat — 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.

Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre
625, boul. du Carrefour, Gatineau
Blouin, Ikoy & Associates — 1997

An unobstructed view of the northern façade of the Preservation Centre shows the external stainless-steel columns that resemble drilling towers. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Library and Archives Canada watches over one of the largest collections of books and archival materials in the world. The collection consists of some 30 million photographs, three million architectural drawings and maps, and 425,000 works of art. Much of this material is stored within the concrete vaults of LAC’s striking Preservation Centre in Gatineau. The facility, designed by Blouin, IKOY & Associates with principal architect Ron Keenberg, opened in June of 1997 and has become a popular destination for researchers, architectural students, and visiting dignitaries (the list is said to include George W. and Laura Bush, the King and Queen of Sweden, and Bryan Adams).

Inside the art vault where a large collection of oil paintings hangs on rolling storage racks. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Conceived as a building within a building, the inner three-storey vault structure is surrounded by a massive glass case — a light-drenched chamber protecting the concrete bunker from the dramatic temperature and humidity swings between summer and winter. The space between the 9.6-metre-high reinforced-concrete wall and the steel-and-glass skin serves as an effective environmental buffer zone and makes for a most impressive entrance hall featuring views of the suspended staircase that spans the entire height of the concrete block.

Detail of suspended staircase (left); the grain elevator-type structure serves as the staff kitchen located between the concrete walls of the storage vaults and the building’s steel-and-glass skin (right). Photos by Nico Valenzuela

A series of conservation labs, modular offices, and staff amenities is located high atop the 48 vaults, creating a village of sorts complete with a main street and alleyways that navigate the upper floor (this design also prevents cross contamination between areas). Reminiscent of the Lloyd’s building in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris — two examples of high-tech architecture — the elevators, ductwork, electrical power conduits, and water pipes are exposed on the outside of the concrete core, resulting in clean and unobstructed interior vault spaces. The wall of windows and the roof structure are supported by 34 columns contained both within and outside the skin of the building. The stainless-steel columns resemble drilling towers — an industrial reference repeated within the building via corrugated walls and poured concrete. Off-the-shelf substructures (store-bought greenhouses and silos) were modified and customized to create unique spaces for the various collections and for preservation activities performed at the centre.

National Holocaust Monument
Corner of Booth and Wellington streets
Daniel Libeskind | Claude Cormier | and Edward Burtynsky — 2017

Northern elevation of monument as seen from adjacent park. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind in collaboration with Quebec landscape architect Claude Cormier and Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky, this monument commemorates the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the millions of other victims of Naziera Germany. It’s an important addition to the city’s architectural fabric.

Composed of six cast-in-place concrete triangles, the massive structure forms a distorted Star of David — a visual symbol long associated with the Jewish people that was also used by the Nazis to mark people for extermination. The Nazis also used coloured triangles to label homosexuals, Romani, Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political and religious prisoners.

Interior views of monument. Photos by Nico Valenzuela

The design follows the formal vocabulary used so successfully by Libeskind in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The slanted walls, varying heights, and labyrinth-like corridors create a sense of distortion and disorientation. Burtynsky’s large-scale monochromatic photographs depicting Holocaust sites throughout Europe further push this sense of loss and unease. Sheltered within the monument is a 14-metre-high contemplation space featuring an eternal flame of remembrance commemorating Holocaust victims. This austere triangular space blocks the view of the city and mutes exterior sounds.

14-metre-tall monochromatic photograph by Edward Burtynsky depicting a rail spur leading to the death camp at Treblinka, Poland. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

The severe angles and exposed concrete walls are softened only by the wide-open sky and the low growing coniferous plants that poke through the monument’s rocky perimeter. A sense of hope and resilience is further underscored by the architect’s insertion of a thin staircase that cuts through an inclined wall pointing east to the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. The monument, comparable in size to the National War Memorial, can be experienced both as a sculpture and as a building. Indeed, it is successful in functioning both as a place of quiet reflection and as a space for large public commemorations (its large central gathering space can accommodate up to 1,000 people). From the outside, it can be seen in the round as each face reveals a different portion of the star. And yet the full experience comes from within as one steps down into the space, walks past the slanted walls, and feels both bound and protected by the structure. This hybridity is perhaps one of the monument’s greatest strengths.

Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat
199 Sussex Dr.
Maki and Associates | Moriyama & Teshima — 2008

A hexagon-patterned screen shrouds the interior of the light-drenched atrium. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Prominently located between the Embassy of Saudi Arabia and the Lester B. Pearson Building along Sussex Drive, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat is perhaps one of Ottawa’s most important contemporary buildings. Designed by famed Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki in collaboration with Moriyama & Teshima Architects, the delegation building serves as the de facto embassy of the Aga Khan and his philanthropic and development agencies.

The elegant white facade, clad in crystallized glass-ceramic panels, surrounds two larger inner sanctuaries: a glazed atrium and an interior courtyard. The entire building sits on a horizontal granite podium to compensate for the change in grade toward King Edward Avenue. The upper floor includes a state office as well as a residence for the Aga Khan, complete with a private balcony overlooking the Ottawa River. The asymmetrical glass dome, inspired by rock crystal, rises to a height of 17 metres — a vertical note complementing the silhouettes of the nearby National Gallery of Canada and the Embassy of the United States of America. The geometric layout of the courtyard recalls a traditional Persian-Islamic walled garden.

View of the walled garden. Photo by Nico Valenzuela

Here, four parts intersect at the centre, with shrubs and trees standing in symmetrical rows in raised planters. In winter, heaters hidden in the tiles of the central path melt the snow, leaving behind a landscape of snow-covered plants.

Inside, a stunning hexagon-patterned screen creates an ever-changing interplay of light and shadow, while the Canadian maple panelling and flooring add warmth and comfort. The pavilion thus emanates a feeling of openness and transparency. Meanwhile, meticulous attention to detail, exemplary craftsmanship, and quality of materials throughout the building capture the attention on a smaller scale. The Ottawa building is the precursor of a series of buildings and gardens commissioned by the Aga Khan, including the Global Centre for Pluralism and other facilities in Toronto and Edmonton. Each of these projects is an architectural achievement in its own right.