It takes a while – sometimes a very long while – but the nation’s capital eventually gets around to dealing with the truly ugly.
The National Arts Centre, a centennial-year project completed in 1969, is about to begin a $110-million facelift that will, among other things, turn the hideous block of a building around to face the right way – toward the street and Parliament Hill.
Another centennial project was to commission a statue to honour former prime minister Arthur Meighen. When another former PM, John Diefenbaker, saw what the artist had created, he dismissed it as “a diabolical creature.” Dief thought the depiction of Meighen might well be “the greatest monstrosity ever produced – a mixture of Ichabod Crane and Daddy Longlegs.”
Meighen’s wife, Isabel, was so put off that she wanted nothing to do with it. For 20 years the statue was hidden away, stored in a concrete vault near the Rideau Canal, until finally it was shipped off to Meighen’s hometown, St. Mary’s, Ont., where it stands today as a monument to a local boy who made good in life, if less so in art.
Now, all of Ottawa is talking about another looming disaster – a memorial to the Victims of Communism that is about to take over a parcel of land between the Supreme Court of Canada and the National Library, a small park-like oasis along Wellington Street where, this past week, there were only squirrel tracks to be found in the fresh-fallen snow.
That land is said to be worth $1-million. For nearly a century it had been earmarked as the site of a new federal court, but has now been handed over for the memorial, along with a pledge of $3-million to help pay for the $5-million project – the remainder to be raised by a charity group called Tribute to Liberty.
Canada is, of course, the recognized world leader in apologies. Only a fool would deny that millions have been the tragic victims of communism, but that number pales, surely, in comparison with the victims of capitalism. If we agree to date communism to the Russian Revolution of 1917 – feel free to argue the point – the dating of capitalism’s crimes would have to extend back beyond the Crusades and the spice wars to the very first deal that went badly sour.
Regardless of that, and despite the fact that there is already a most-impressive and expensive Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, this new memorial in Ottawa is going ahead.
But it certainly isn’t going smoothly. Back in September, even before the final design had been selected from among the five competitors, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin felt compelled to write to Public Works to “share some concerns.”
In the letter obtained by the Ottawa Citizen, the Chief Justice reminded Public Works that the site had long been designated as part of the judicial precinct, and she raised the rather valid point that such a memorial “could send the wrong message within the judicial precinct, unintentionally conveying a sense of bleakness and brutalism that is inconsistent with a space dedicated to the administration of justice.”
And that was just the beginning. Once the winning design had been chosen – a series of “folded” concrete rows covered with 100-million “memory squares” to represent lives lost – others began speaking out as well. A member of the selection jury, Shirley Blumberg, conceded to the media that the quality of submissions had been “poor.” Not only that, she added, but “the one that was selected by the jury was, I think, particularly brutalist and visceral.” In the opinion of the Toronto architect, the Ottawa memorial “won’t move people to think that there could be a better world. To me it’s just focusing on evil.”
The piling on continued. Respected local Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky sent an open letter to the Prime Minister arguing that the site needed “a significant piece of architecture,” not what was eventually selected.
Even a former Ottawa-area Member of Parliament chimed in. In a letter to the Citizen, David Daubney said, “I view this as a totally disproportionate distortion of our history and another insult to the residents of Ottawa and most reasonable Canadians. Does the government want a revived 1950s Red Scare to be added to its fear of terrorism campaign or is this just a convenient, if expensive, way for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to thumb his nose at the Supreme Court in perpetuity?”
Chief Justice McLachlin had been careful not to politicize the situation, declaring in her letter that she would not comment on the decision or the placement – “that is for the government to decide” – but others have wryly noted that the new building that everyone once believed would fill the empty space was to be known as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building.
Politics aside, there is the far more simple issue of aesthetics and, well, ugliness.
Larry Beasley, chair of the advisory committee on planning and design for the National Capital Commission, which oversees such grounds, told Maclean’s magazine his committee was disappointed. The University of British Columbia professor, once head of planning for the City of Vancouver, said his committee not only believed it was “not a good site,” but that the winning design – by Toronto’s ABSTRAKT Studio Architecture – “was not the one the majority of our group preferred.”
Unfortunately, Prof. Beasley’s committee was only to advise, not instruct – so the original location and the chosen design are going ahead. Current planning calls for “major elements” to be in place for an inauguration ceremony scheduled for next fall.
When Ms. Blumberg spoke to the Citizen, the made it clear that in her expert opinion, the planned memorial on such a prime and important piece of national property overshadows the history of our country and, in the end, “misrepresents and skews” what this country is all about.
Not necessarily so, though. Once it is up, perhaps this country can get around to doing what it does so very, very well.
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