The Smith Report: Hope for Ottawa’s Heritage Conservation Districts?

Ottawa is going through a difficult time. There is a structural flaw in its management and how it listens to its citizens, especially when it comes to protecting its heritage conservation districts (HCDs). Yesterday, the Smith Report was released, outlining the state of crisis in preserving and protecting Ottawa’s HCDs. There are key insights in the report that everyone should be aware of.

The present situation is not surprising since most governments are ‘amber organizations’: highly structured hierarchies of power, with few opportunities for staff to engage with communities in a meaningful way and often lacking in transparency. They are out of date and likely part of the cause of such polarity in politics today.

Because Ottawa is driven mostly by federal government institutions and employment, there’s little room to advance how we can have a better and more engaged polity. We imagine ourselves to be humane and leaders in progressive urbanism , but sadly this is lost on a Council that has inherent structural flaws – thanks mostly to the Mike Harris government of the 1990s. Ottawa is not known for its bottom-up innovation, though there are sometimes glimmers of change.

There are many actions the City could easily take, but a key one that I have heard mention is it should be more transparent. Politicians and senior executives always have a difficult time being open in these old-fashioned organizations. When they don’t truly listen to citizens, there is the reason why we have such consistent frustration and dissatisfaction by the public. Many citizens have experienced this first hand when attending and/or speaking at committees (which also have low public turn-out).

There are many innovations the City could adopt: free public transportation, better bike infrastructure, low-carbon incentives (imagine free full-electric car parking), develop real public space etc. But, an easy step in the right direction would be for the City to take heritage conservation seriously.

Place only has meaning when it is cared for through passion, intimacy and immediacy. This was understood in Ottawa a century ago when the City Beautiful movement was influencing the transformation of the City from a lumber town into a capital.

Heritage conservation at its heart is sustainable and the only option for our future. Why? Because it works within its means. Yes, there are disastrous abuses of heritage, such as the Chateau Laurier addition, though this debacle was avoidable if there was better independent leadership by the City. Where there was once a strong sense of how Ottawa could be a livable city, this is being challenged, particularly by certain developers wishing for short-term gain.

Heritage can be a loaded term. It can be manipulated to benefit different stakeholders, but ultimately, the goal is to maintain unique and distinctive qualities of a space that imparts connection between each other and rootedness in place, time and history.

In many ways heritage districts were born out of a need to counter the modernist project of the past century. It speaks to the local, which many people lack in their lives (especially by globalised people).

Beauty, love and social fabric should be in your backyard, and those social values are part of preserving the architecture, design and sense of place of neighbourhoods and districts. Tower landscapes may be the lollipops of councillors, but the sweetness of Ottawa will not be found in the proposed Lebreton Flats developments, instead it is found on main streets and in small mixed neighbourhoods.

What Ottawa must better understand is the natural and cultural capital of its 20 heritage districts and improve on their protection. They are being compromised and eroded, to the disappointment and frustration of citizens who live within them. Personally, we were attracted to our neighbourhood because our house was within a heritage district. This is a good quality to preserve.

A very important report has been circulated addressing the crisis of heritage conservation districts in Ottawa. Written by architect, planner and heritage advocate, Julian Smith, it was spearheaded by the Rockcilffe Park Residents Association, with support of other Ottawa community associations.

It succinctly outlines why protection of heritage conservation districts is not being supported by the City and constructive suggestions on how to improve this situation. Read it here:

The Smith Report

 

I want a livable and unique city. One that is healthy and related to both the human and natural world. That is Ottawa’s identity, and yet, the tendency for our leaders is a wish-fulfillment for being Toronto or Vancouver instead of seeing the love of our place for what it is. Let us hope this report will bring about a better council and a better commitment to protect our heritage conservation districts.

When Architecture Fails to Speak for Itself…The Château Laurier addition.

Imagine it is 2030 and over the past decade the Château Laurier addition has been derided not only for its misunderstanding of architecture, but for the City’s poor decision to allow this decorated box to be constructed. In 2030, visitors to the Capital are surprised that a generic rectangular box, clearly struggling to relate to the Picturesque Château, was ever built. They will ask: isn’t it a National Historic Site? Weren’t there strict controls? Didn’t it hold a symbolism and meaning that is part of the City’s identity that should be better respected?

This future cannot be: an outside architect, who does not fully appreciate context, produces a weak design that is built because we lack awareness of our own architectural identity.

Downtown Ottawa is composed of four quadrants: a federal precinct (north of Wellington and Mackenzie), a business core (south of Wellington), a former transportation hub (east of Sussex Drive) and a people’s market (the Byward Market). Each quadrant holds its own architectural expression. The federal quadrant is revivalist, with nationalist and historicist meanings that the original architects of the Château Laurier understood. The office towers of the central business core offer another expression – more functional and less inspired by an aesthetic approach to architecture. The Union Station, the Canal and the driveways are transport routes and buildings for the core. The Byward Market is a human-scaled pedestrian zone.

What architectsAlliance and their conservation architects, ERA Architects, are proposing is the insertion of a functional, albeit now partially dressed, decorated box into the historicist precinct. They resist and ignore the conceptual and architectural language of this space.

Château Laurier Addition, 4th Version (May 2018) released by Larco Investments.

As version has followed version, it has become abundantly clear that the architects do not understand the place. They are misguided in understanding the identity of Ottawa and its relationship to landscape and the spectacle of this romanticized space.

Good architecture speaks for itself. It is not defended for years by the designer. Good architecture may be challenging, radical and exciting, but that is not the story of this addition. It is a story of a resistant architect, and by consequence a resistant owner, neither of whom can see the values of the Chateau Laurier.

Peter Clewes insists he is not interested in being popular (although his communication team released to the media that 70% of respondents support the latest design), and he considers Ottawa to be  “fearful of change” and “skeptical of change” (“Château Laurier architect defends modernist addition,” CBC, June 11, 2018). Actually, it is not that change is feared, but that we do not want poor change – also known as a mistake.

Rationalizing beauty is always a red flag, and this is what the architects are desperately trying to do after unveiling their fourth version of the design. Not only is the work now truly a decorated box, there is a paucity of beauty.

Both Peter Clewes and Michael McLelland have at expert committees and City-controlled public consultations, explained their design as a modernist interpretation of the Picturesque and associational values of the Château Laurier. They have used poor examples (including the Louvre addition, Foster’s Reichstag and the urbanist addition to the Glasgow School of Art) as justifications for their decorated box. But all miss the fundamental flaws of their design: its lack of symbolic language; its massing relationship; its intellectual language; its ethical expression.

The debate over the design is not one of ancients versus moderns – as Clewes (who is ‘award-winning’ – what architectural firm is not these days?) and their team have tried to frame the debate. It is, in fact, a debate about poetry and ethical poesis (or the ethics of creating). The morality and ethics of the architects’ imagination in understanding the cultural expression of early 20th century Canada, in all its complexity, is what should drive the design of the addition to the Chateau Laurier.

Instead, what we have is an architect who is wishing to defend his design within a simplistic framework of modernist-versus-postmodernist world. Meaning, Clewes’ modernism is a counterpoint to the aesthetic superficiality of post-modern designs (or a 20th-century historicism that he likely abhorred in the 1980s). His argument does not truly respond to the public debate. The real debate is about the ethics of architecture and why the wealthy owners cannot resolve to listen to public and professional opinion on what is most appropriate for an addition.

Clewes’ arguments for defending the design morphed as each iteration of the design was unveiled. His arguments have included: positioning the addition as contemporary while also respecting the Château Laurier’s heritage; that the addition is not an addition to the Château, but an object now related to the urban landscape of the park; that the glass block is a silhouette or shadow – or even the opposite, a “luminous palette” that does not compete or “overwhelm the heritage features” of the Château. A confident intelligent design does not constantly shift in justification to suit taste and fashion, whether it be for the general public or for the approval process.

Earlier attempts at the addition were intended to be an abstraction of the Château’s architecture. Now, in the latest design, we have an abstraction that has lost its essence due to Clewes and his team’s desperate search for material ornament to appease those critical of the design (more specifically, the City of Ottawa’s Urban Design Review Panel). I suspect they will ultimately succeed since the City’s planning department will capitulate to almost any powerful landowner.

Obviously, architecture is experienced in different ways than an artwork, but the concept of a work that is an object of beauty can be achieved. Additions are challenging, especially when the previous addition, (designed in 1928 by John S. Archibald with John Schofield) was a subtle, distinguishable wing that was praised and that the public enjoyed when unveiled. It used ornament to extend the language of the original building. Indeed, when the original owners were not satisfied with the first version of the Château Laurier in 1908, they fired the architect!

An example recently sent to me was the insertion by Ptolemy Dean Architects at Westminster Abbey. An internal stair would have damaged the building’s historic fabric. In response, the Gothic abbey opted to create an external staircase to access the exhibition rooms. Though a small insertion to the site, the “steampunk” Neo-Gothic element is contemporary as well as historicist. It certainly would comply with the Standard 11 of the Standard & Guidelines.

Weston Tower, Westminster Abbey, London, UK (Ptolemy Dean, architects, 2018)

At this exasperating stage of the process, I would even entertain out of desperation a reproduction as an option (see Robert Stern’s Pauli Murray & Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, 2017).

Design can be symbolic and express its function. Clewes’ design is now frantically adding decoration – not ornament, in hopes of finally acquiring that precious building permit. This version of the addition still does not express the symbolism that is the Chateau Laurier. It is why it continues to fail as an addition and should not be built.

The Château Laurier may be in private hands, but there is a public function to the building that must be understood in this debate. For a building type – the grand railway hotel – it is young, only a little more than a century old. But the significance of its expression is as equal to the cathedral-like qualities of the Parliament buildings.

Attempts to build decorated boxes within the Parliamentary precinct have been proposed before. Can this neo-modernist box, now fully decorated and facing Majors Hill Park, become part of the narrative of our identity? I doubt it.

In 2030, some of us will pine for the Château Laurier’s dignified qualities before the addition. We will be embarrassed to tell a younger generation of the addition’s failure to incite excitement and create a sense of place. We will need to explain to our visitors why it was a mistake. We will explain who the architects were and how Council at the time decided to allow this to happen, without understanding its design flaws.

On the other hand, there is an election this year and perhaps Council will wish not to be remembered for a poor decision with major consequences for us all.

The preferred option of an open, transparent, national competition, with public engagement which would lead to citizens embracing Larco’s participatory vision for one of their most beloved landmarks, could still occur if they simply halted this process.

A Pillar of Conservation: Barbara Humphreys (1919-2017)

Barbara’s encouragement and support was an inspiration to me over the past fifty years. (Stuart Lazear)

We had wonderful and exciting years working together on the Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings. (Meredith Sykes)

She was a consummate professional, a gentle mentor and a friend. (Christina Cameron)

In recent years, we have sadly lost several pioneering heritage conservationists in Canada. Last week, Barb Humphreys, who was one of the pillars of heritage conservation in Canada, passed away at 97. An important figure from the first wave of Canadian conservation, she laid the foundation for future work on protecting Canada’s built heritage.

Her career began as one of the first female registered architects in Canada, graduating from the University of Manitoba when modernism was in ascent. She first worked for Defence Construction Ltd. designing for military bases, moving to the Department of Public Works and then to private practice. She understood architecture: her Manotick home, built in 1953, reflected her exceptional facility for design.

“Architect wife of Dr. Humphreys” The Ottawa Journal, November 28, 1959

Surrounded by historic buildings along the Rideau Canal, Barbara was drawn to the emerging field of heritage conservation. Her first foray into the field was to document historic sites along the Rideau Canal in 1967. In turn, this work led her back into public service, where she spearheaded the creation of the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building (CIHB).

In the wake of centennial celebrations, the federal government acknowledged that there was a poor understanding of the country’s built heritage. With only one architectural historian on staff at Parks Canada, a larger team was required.

Barbara’s survey work on the Rideau Canal corridor gained her invaluable experience in understanding historic structures. Her work brought her to the attention of Jack Richardson, who hired Barbara, along with Ann Faulkner and recent Columbia graduate Meredith Sykes to develop the CIHB. As Christina Cameron remembers, “they were the triumvirate of women who led the innovative Canadian Inventory of Historic Building programme.”

Barbara had a central role in designing and implementing CIHB at a time when Parks Canada was at the forefront of research on Canada’s built environment and protection of historic sites. Along with Peter Stokes, Hazen Sise and Jim Acland, she and her colleagues created the world’s first computerized database of historic buildings. It contained over 150,000 buildings and remains an accessible resource in the Documentation Centre at Parks Canada.

Its success spread around the world, and it was eventually used by New York City and at UNESCO. Barbara’s work on CIHB resonates well with today’s sustainable heritage – shifting away from monumental architecture to the streets of every town in Canada.

Barbara fostered the second wave of heritage conservationists in Canada – the ones who would create the framework, policies and legislation for heritage conservation in the 1970s and 1980s. Early on, she hired students to assist her. Stuart Lazear helped with documentation on the Rideau Canal and would later be a recorder for CIHB. Students hired as heritage recorders fanned out across the country to document buildings. The work brought a new awareness to the variety and complexity of Canada’s vernacular architecture and created a broader appreciation of what was of value. As Christina Cameron recalls, “Barbara and I toured the Île d’Orléans together [in 1970], scouting out 17th and 18th century farm houses and sharing a picnic lunch along the way. With her experienced architectural eye, she helped me to see the similarities and differences between the typical maison française and British stone houses along the Rideau Canal.”

More a seasoned practitioner than a self-promoter, Barbara brought architectural history to the public. As she said, “buildings around us reflect what we were, how wealthy we were, how we lived and [our] cultural influences.” She developed a training module called “Architecture as Living History” in association with the National Film Board; she prepared “The Buildings of Canada,” a style guide published by Reader’s Digest. Reaching out beyond academia and her profession, Barbara was a true public historian.

After retirement from Parks Canada in 1981, she remained involved in many organizations and continued to teach architectural history at Carleton University. As a founder of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, the first organization in Canada to study the history of the built environment, she remained involved and recognized for her early role. In later years, she worked to protect her beloved Watson’s Mill in Manotick, and published Legacy in Stone: The Rideau Corridor (1999).

Aside from her many recognitions, including the Gabrielle Léger Medal and Queen Elizabeth’s silver and golden jubilee medals, it was her inspiration and role in Canada’s conservation movement that is fondly remembered by us. She had many protégés who went on to work in the field of conservation across Canada, but her legacy stretches to all generations. I once had the privilege to spend an afternoon with her recounting stories when I was the Canadian Registrar. She was, for me, a living legacy of what began as a national project in the 1960s and continued with the creation of the Canadian Register of Historic Places. Her foundational and visionary work will always play a central part of the story of heritage conservation in Canada.

 

Ottawa’s Suburban Heritage

Ottawa is transforming from a suburban city into a denser and more urban one. Light Rail Transit is coming, densification has brought more condominium towers to the city core and the post-war generation of baby boomers are beginning to downsize their living spaces. But what will become of the vast tracts of once sought-after suburban houses stretching from Carp to Cumberland?

Half a century ago, Ottawa was a very different city. Ottawa’s population grew by 60% after the Second World War as a cadre of public servants supported the transformation of Canada’s post-war economy and the building of the welfare state.

Ottawa experienced a feverish pace of construction. Government campuses and suburban developments appeared overnight. Developers could begin as small-town builders one day and become wealthy financiers the next. They built custom homes, tract housing, townhomes – whatever the market dictated as veterans and public servants could now realistically own a piece of private property, albeit in 25 years’ time. One could buy a home in “Alta Vista”, at “Crystal Beach”, or in “Lynwood Village” – all pleasant places on offer to nuclear families. A suburban home was the “key to better living” according to developer Robert Campeau.

Today, interest in suburban history and heritage has lagged behind other areas of heritage protection and management. Tangible elements of ‘suburbia’ are a challenge to conserve when there has been such a strong social stigma attached to the idea of the suburbs. Even in the 1950s, the ‘Organization Man’ in the ‘grey flannel suit’ or the kaffeklatsch of housewives brought stereotypes to suburban life that remain ingrained in North American perceptions of suburbia, ironically even by the people who enjoyed the suburban lifestyle.

To high-style architects, and especially to critics who were examining the North America’s urban blight in the wake of the flight to the suburbs, uniform places were anathema to their ideals of community, and these opinions continue today as the environmental impact of the suburban landscape may be unsustainable into the future.

Our city’s version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City now causes us to questions of what value are these neighbourhoods. Are they important to the identity of the city? Are they spaces that may be transformed yet retain their pastoral landscape qualities?

The trees have matured, the 60-year old split-levels, the CMHC 1,000-square-foot model homes, and the Victory Houses are now at an age that the history of suburbs is up for discussion as large grassy lots become attractive potential for infill. Aside from Lindenlea and a few Garden City imaginations, Ottawa’s post-war suburbs are a touchpoint for discussion on how these places will evolve in the coming decades.

Suburbs emerged beyond towns and cities and their evolution follow different patterns, shaped by modern planning and stricter zoning. Places of worship, schools and plazas were well planned around the mobility of the automobile. Yet Ottawa’s suburbs are probably more layered and complex than what is imagined.

A unique feature of Ottawa’s suburbs are its federal campuses developed after the 1950 Gréber Plan. Tunney’s Pasture, a low-rise semi-secure campus for federal departments which may soon be transformed into a high-density urban hub, or Confederation Heights, a spread-out campus gradually transforming, or the high-tech campus of the National Research Council were experiments in public-sector pastoralism. Of course these campuses have evolved since the 1950s, yet they remain overlooked monumental modern complexes. Even today similar suburban headquarters continue to be built for well-funded government agencies, such as the $1.2 billion “spy palace” on Ogilvie Road for the Communications Security Establishment Canada Agency.

Other places are unfortunately neglected. The abandoned former Federal Study Centre on Heron Road – once a religious campus – holds a wealth of modern artistry and planning that could potentially be an adaptively reused signature site for the city’s Guildwood Estates neighbourhood.

The first steps to envisioning a sustainable future for the suburbs is to recognize its diversity and evolution. The home designs in Qualicum, the evolution of Westgate or Billings Bridge shopping plazas, or the intact veteran homes of Viscount Avenue, each possess potential value that may bridge mid-century modernism with the ecological age that is today.

A rare architect-designed neighbourhood, Briarcliffe, has been protected, but what of the model homes of Manor Park, or the experimental cooperative of Fairhaven Way? As Millennials seek out smaller more affordable homes, the Victory Home may be reinvented as sustainable and restored homes that their great-grandparents enjoyed in 1946.

Heritage & Loneliness

The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:

Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.

Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.

Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.

Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…

Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.

To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.