“There’s an awful lot of our city that is kind of boring” —  Architect Toon Dreessen on reconciliation, education, and creativity
People & Places

“There’s an awful lot of our city that is kind of boring” — Architect Toon Dreessen on reconciliation, education, and creativity

If it were up to Toon Dreessen, architecture would be like math or literature — taught in schools from kindergarten to Grade 12. The past president of the Ontario Association of Architects answers questions about why Ottawa should raise its design standards, give LeBreton Flats to the Indigenous community, and get more voices involved in shaping our city.

How would you rate Ottawa architecturally?
There are some incredibly beautiful heritage buildings, but most of them are federal. The Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature, Rideau Hall. As a city, when we take those pieces out of the equation, there are some snapshots of some really wonderful pieces of architecture. But there’s an awful lot of our city that is kind of boring. It’s very low-risk. And we don’t embrace the kind of creativity that I think we could as a city.

Architect Toon Dreessen outside 360 Lofts on Cumberland Street, a 38-unit infill apartment that won awards from the city and Ontario Wood Works.  Photo by Remi Theriault

How can we change that?
We need to reform our procurement strategies. And one of the ways we can do that is through hosting design competitions. A really good example is the LRT. We could have said, “Here’s a dozen stations. We’re going to host a design competition for each of those. And each station is going to be designed by a different firm.” You’re giving these firms that normally can’t compete in a regular Request for Proposals process an opportunity to take part in the design of the city they live in.

Do you think we’ve slacked off as a city because of the federal presence?
Absolutely. Would we be on the path to creating the new central library if we didn’t have Library and Archives Canada as our partner? We might. But places like Halifax and Calgary have done spectacular central libraries and they don’t have federal partners. What makes us think that we can’t do that too? There’s a cheapness. We want to do things cheap. The difference between cheap and better value is huge. We tend to have this approach where we want to do something cheaper and not recognize that it’s going to cost us more in the long run. 

If you had a magic wand, what would you fix about Ottawa?
I would rethink our transportation approach. If part of our goal is to create a more moderately dense city within the Greenbelt, then we need to provide better public transit within the Greenbelt. That would have enormous influence on massive population centres, employment centres, and create the ability to lift those communities. 

And I’d rethink our approach to street trees. Lansdowne is a great example. We plant trees. We don’t maintain them. We stick them in the ground and then bury them in salt all winter long. We don’t plant trees that are big enough that they can survive. Not only does our city look terrible as a result, but we’re in this constant process of putting in a tree and then it dies, and a few years later we put in another one and we hope for the best. We really need to rethink street trees with broader sidewalks and more tree canopy.

How should reconciliation enter into our discussions about architecture?
I know when I’m creating a building for a client, I’m doing so on unsettled land. There’s a tension in that. We need to address land claims. There’s no easy answer to this. LeBreton Flats was Indigenous land first. It’s been vacant for decades. I think there’s a real argument for giving this land back. Let’s return this land to the Indigenous people. I look at what’s happening with the Squamish people in Vancouver, who are not only building spectacular, beautiful buildings, they’re building housing, they’re building places for community, they’re forging community on land that is theirs.

What should we do with the downtown core if more people are working from home?
I think it’s an enormous opportunity. We need to think about pedestrianizing more streets, removing the dominance of single-occupant vehicles from downtown. Create more places for people. Have more patio space, more street life, more street-front retail, cafés, and stores. Put an incentive in to turn vacant office space into residential buildings. It’s not easy to do, so I think we need to provide some incentives and start looking at how we can incentivize larger landowners and building owners to bring more people and more housing affordability to the downtown core.

When debates about architecture spring up, what do you think is missing from the discussion?
There’s no strong local, active voice for architecture. There’s an aversion to criticism. And we don’t have an education model. Architecture education is very exclusive. You can’t take an architecture class if you don’t want to be an architect because we make it exclusive. We need to put architecture into kindergarten through Grade 12, so that kids are exposed to architecture and understand its role in society.

Do you have a favourite spot in Ottawa, a favourite place to stand?
One of my favourite places is in the courtyard between Clarence and York, where I’m looking at the back of the heritage buildings on Sussex and there’s the Dancing Bear sculpture. It’s quiet, it’s a beautiful scale. It’s a reflection of contemporary art, Indigenous values. Another one is the Alexandra Bridge. Crossing that bridge is an incredible experience. To experience the wind, the river, the sense of transition from land to water, the sense of history — it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about preserving that bridge.