Byline: Rhys Phillips
Notes: Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa writer on architecture and urban planning
SO Ottawa Citizen (OTT)
LP --- 'Spirit of place'; Architecture that embraces the elements --- Is there such a thing as an architecture of Ottawa? Not so long ago such a question would have prompted quiet scorn from most architectural theorists and practitioners alike.
TX After all, since Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson's famous 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the ''International Style'' has come to dominate formal architecture. From London to Beograd, from New York to Vancouver, from Singapore to Melbourne and back again to Ottawa, there has been a steady homogenization of architectural expression. The streetscape and design profile of one city have become interchangeable with those of all other cities. The opening credits of Dallas, spread across a panorama of modern towers, could almost be a board of trade promo for Ottawa or 100 other like cities. Of course, there was nothing ''international'' about the international style. Its proponents were seeking to plump for a severe, ''machine-like'' modernism against other contending esthetics. Others, like Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture or Alvan Aalto's Nordic traditionalism, were indeed modern but they never lost sight of the specific place in which their buildings were to exist. After the war, however, the coincidence of a design approach which favored standardization, the use of cheap modern materials and an absence of expensive, crafted decoration led to the style's rapid spread. An international branch-plant economy paved the way for an ''international'' branch-plant architecture. Even the arrival of ''post modern'' architecture has resulted in architects who traipse from one city to the next, even one country to the next, with a grab bag of tired historicist cliches to make their monolithic structures somehow more palatable. Building the truly great city rather than the merely comfortable requires a rejection of the still dominant notion that architecture knows no boundaries, an insidious, myopic, even imperialist notion that lies at the base of Ottawa the bland. Even some of the strongest supporters of modernism are realizing that the banal reduction of the modern age to a simple, universal design program has had a catastrophic effect on the richness of architectural expression. No less an authority than modernist critic extraordinaire Kenneth Framptom has declared that regionalism is an ''architecture of place rather than space... a way of building sensitive to the vicissitudes of time and * climate.'' Likewise, the Aga Khan's journal MIMAR promotes the adaptation of the indigenous architecture of developing countries for modern uses. But if we start to think about _ let's call it an Ottawa Valley Regionalism _ it shouldn't be confused with some standardized historical style. The notion of vernacular architecture is much more complex than that. Norwegian theorist Christian Norberg Schulz uses the Latin term Genius Loci, translated as ''meaning or spirit of place'' to define the multilayered relationship between climate, geography, history and collective memory which synthesizes into an architecture of place. It is why Paris is Paris, Rome is Rome or Prague is Prague. The psychic reality Ottawa shares with many Canadian cities is the tension of being order on the edge of chaos; a controlled urban environment surrounded by a harsh wilderness set in a cold climate. Our geography is the tough hills of the Gatineaus which, even if they seem more benign today, reach out from the past to leave a strong sense of severity _ a rough landscape which is so close and immediate that many of us see it from our homes and our offices. Two somewhat contradictory responses have emerged in our cityscape. Clearly, order is important. We find it in the neat grid patterns of our early city, in the formal arrangement of Parliament Hill and in the fine Georgian architecture; Maplelawn (529 Richmond Rd.), Aylmer's old City Hall and the fine single gable stone houses in Lanark County are beautifully controlled predecessors of Alex Rankin's Regional Services Building (495 Richmond Rd). Conversely, we have not sought a sheltered architecture. There has been an embracing of the elements perhaps best exemplified by Confederation Square. It is not a European plaza of tightly defined space; it is broken open to the hills and marked by a variety of distinct buildings. This comfort with openness makes the outside-on-the-inside dynamic a crucial part of our successful architecture. This is what Moshe Safdie got right in parts of the National Gallery and why the Murray's Airport renovation is such a pleasure. It is also what makes so many of Ottawa's office boxes such emotional disasters. Perhaps the crystallization of order in chaos and the inside/outside dynamic is most elegantly brought together in John Bland's original city hall. Two natural elements play a pivotal role in our perception of the city. It should come as no surprise that one of these is water. It is not just a natural element. Water represents motion and changing form. It carries the historical resonance of the area over centuries _ trading Indians, portaging explorers, loggers, millhands, shippers on the canal. Our rivers are both a barrier and a system of communication and commerce into the valleys. Ottawa is a city of arrival and departure. It is no accident the Rideau Canal dominates the city, not just as a physical object, but as a metaphor that binds the collective memory. The struggle which went into building it and to maintaining it; its perceived success, even if it's never served its intended purpose, underlies the particularly Canadian relationship to the public project. Only a few, usually public buildings give architectural form to these images: Arthur Erickson's use of a still pool and rushing water in the Bank of Canada, Douglas Cardinal's study of motion and earthly form in the Museum of Civilization, Guy Desbaret's whimsical but controlled moving forms in the Museum of Aviation and Kris Jensen's nordic study in wood for the Danish ambassador's residence (420 Lisgar Rd.). The second natural element is Ottawa's marvelous light; crisp, strong and northern. Raymond Moriyama recognized the power of our light. His Regional headquarters' glass drum is set to reflect the magnificent late western sun while the ''eyebrow'' arch will deflect synthetic light into the clear evening air. Likewise, John Parkin's Alta Vista train station is not only infused with natural light, its powerful modern form is imprinted on the broader southern sky. Nowhere is the silhouette-light relationship more stunning than from the McKenzie bridge at dusk looking west towards Parliament Hill. It is impossible here to explore fully the meaning of place that is Ottawa. But it should already be clear we and our designers should be thinking through more overtly our complex experience of the place in which we dwell. Perhaps we should be considering the nordic influenced modernism of Finnish architects like Gullichsen Kairamo and Ilmo Valjakka as a counterpoint to the frenetic architectural trends to the south; perhaps we should be interested in why, as Soviet critic Viacheslav Glazichev has said, Leningrad, a northern city, ''imprints itself on the mind;'' and perhaps we should wonder why the NCC wants to monumentalize LaBreton Flats when the city's strength has been in its informality. One thing is certain, Ottawa will never be a fine international city until it is a great regional city. (Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa writer on architecture and urban planning.)
ILLUSTRATION: Citizen photo/ Top, Maplelawn, an example of Georgian architecture; above, still pool at the Bank of Canada @Art: P @Art: Citizen photo/ Top, Maplelawn, an example of Georgian architecture above, still pool at the Bank of Canada
Back to Aga Khan Press Clippings Index