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Jeffrey Simpson
Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

When shaping the capital, do so with care Add to ...

A baseball batter who hits .333 might make the All-Star team. Planners and politicians who hit .333 in designing a country’s capital should ride the pines.

In Ottawa recently, the Harper government made three important announcements that will shape Canada’s capital. One was a home run; the other two were strikeouts.

First, the home run. For Canada’s centennial year, 1967, it was decided to build a cultural centre. Late and over budget, the National Arts Centre arrived in 1969 on the banks of the Rideau Canal, an architectural dud of the first order.

The NAC, attractive inside but forbidding outside, reflected the briefly-in-vogue brutalist architectural style of the 1960s that scarred cities (and university campuses) in other parts of Canada. Brutalism erected huge blocks of concrete that turned a building’s back on the street. (See Montreal’s Place Bonaventure, for a particularly hideous example of brutalism.)

Three weeks ago, the Harper government moved to rectify this architectural error. It committed at least $110-million to giving the NAC a badly needed facelift by opening up the walls that now make the building look like a prison from Elgin Street. The outstanding architectural firm of Diamond Schmitt will make the changes happen by 2017, in time for the country’s 150th anniversary.

Lots of people inside government and at the NAC deserve credit for this excellent decision, but special kudos go to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Ottawa’s Godfather in the federal cabinet, and to Peter Herrndorf, the NAC’s president and arguably the greatest cultural administrator (Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Stratford Festival, Toronto Life magazine, TVOntario) in Canada over the past three decades.

So much for the home run. Now for the whiffs.

Out in suburban Nowhereland sits the Canada Science and Technology Museum. It’s hard to find, ugly beyond belief on the outside, but full of fascinating stuff inside, a great place for school groups, among others.

In addition to the museum’s terrible location in an industrial park, the building actually began to fall apart, with leaking roofs and the like. Things got so bad that it has had to close for a long stretch, it being unsafe for visitors.

In a reprise of the old line about putting lipstick on a pig, the government has decided to spend $80-million on a bad building in the wrong place. With such a great collection for an age where science and technology grow daily in importance, the case for starting over with something new, somewhere closer to central Ottawa is overwhelming. Any additional money, however, might have fed the perception outside the capital that Ottawa is Fat City with too many museums and the like already.

The $80-million (or whatever the eventual cost) is a waste, since the essential problems of poor location and building design will remain. Is it too late to stop this lipstick-on-a pig project?

Equally bad is the site for the new Memorial to the Victims of Communism, the brainchild of a private foundation eagerly supported by the Harper government.

The site along Wellington Street, the main ceremonial thoroughfare that runs in front of the Parliament Buildings, is diagonally across from the Art Deco Supreme Court building. From some angles, the huge new memorial will block views of the Supreme Court.

Until 2012, the site was supposed to be for a new Federal Court Building, thereby completing a triad of judicial buildings: the Justice Department, the Supreme Court and the Federal Court.

The huge memorial will take most of an entire square. Costs have already risen with Ottawa’s share (private philanthropy is supposed to raise $2.5-million) going from $1.5-million to $4-million.

Shirley Blumberg, a partner at one of Canada’s most creative architectural firms, KPMB, and a member of the design jury for the memorial, thinks the cost estimate is way too low. Try two or three times higher, she suggests.

Worse, Ms. Blumberg told the Ottawa Citizen that the site is all wrong: “I have a massive problem, a huge problem, with this memorial going on that site. I think it completely misrepresents and skews what Canada is all about.” She warned that it will “completely dominate” nearby buildings, including the Supreme Court and should therefore be placed elsewhere.

Ms. Blumberg is absolutely right. The memorial will be in the wrong place. As with the Science and Technology Museum decision, is it too late to think again? Bad planning decisions last for a century or more.

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