After the snow and the slush, there's the titillating promise of tulips, acres of them, and endless parks in which to frolic. But to an outsider, even someone like me who lived for years in Canada's capital, Ottawa often comes off as a tight-lipped schoolmarm, primly outfitted in restrictive Victorian dress and ready to wag a finger at anybody who fails to jump clear of oncoming snowplows on sidewalks. Yes, across the way, there's always clubbing in Hull. In Ottawa, it seems, a cup of tea at the gloomily lit Sparks Shopping Centre is a tolerated indulgence.
Which is why the moody, curved archi-body that now graces the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa has me standing at attention. For the first time, a compelling architectural gesture has danced into the city. The Ottawa Convention Centre, designed with flare and gusto by local architect Ritchard Brisbin and officially open for business next month, hip-checks the conventional parochialism of the 19th-century lumber town that converted, reluctantly, into a national capital. In one fantastic assault, it dismisses the credo that Ottawa should be preserved like a historic precious.
Brisbin, director of Ottawa-based BBB Architects, and his design-build partner, Graham Bird of PCL Constructor, have given that snow globe a long-overdue shake. And out has tumbled architectural freedom, in the form of an exhilarating reinterpretation of the typically monstrous convention centres that have devoured cities everywhere.
It's no mean feat to convince the National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation mandated to guard the integrity of Ottawa's architecture and safeguard the city's heroic landscape views, to change it up big time. In various iterations, the NCC has worked since 1899 to define the capital as an expression of the Canadian identity. Hewers of wood, drawers of water? Well-understood. Birthing a fresh, edgier identity for a downtown? Not so much. You can imagine the intensity of negotiations around whether or not to approve a glass spaceship nosing toward the Rideau Canal.
In fact, the OCC came close to being moved out of town to a vacant green field, but Bird successfully argued that the 200,000-square-foot building deserved pride of place at the northern terminus of the Rideau Canal, a monumental waterway owned by Parks Canada and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site four years ago.
The original Ottawa Congress Centre - the name rebranding happened two years ago - was half the size of the new building, and sat darkly at the same location like an impenetrable concrete fortress with accommodation made for cars - not pedestrians - to swoop easily into its underbelly. Some of its steel trusses and original flooring have been reused, part of the firm's extensive sustainable-design initiatives that will likely land the centre a LEED Silver rating.
The epic glass face, an ellipse that curves from side to side and sashays from top to bottom like a elongated S, establishes a bold civic presence. At times, to the north and south, the glass, lined with an insulating "performance" film to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer, flies free of the building.
But the real daring of the design comes from its thrust westward as it claims two lanes of Colonel By Drive, conveyed by the NCC to the design-build consortium for nearly $1-million, a move that instantly snagged coveted views of the city's historic precinct. Complementing the centre's new public plaza located below a tuck within the glass skirt, the NCC and Parks Canada are constructing a small civic square detailed with granite pavers and robust wooden benches across the street and next to the Rideau Canal.
From inside, walking through the fourth-floor ballroom, it's easy to make the visual sweep from the Rideau Canal, past the spires of the Chateau Laurier and Parliament Buildings to the Ottawa River. Even on a dull, overcast day, the room feels monumental and sumptuous, offering welcome respite from Ottawa's badly lit downtown interiors.
Many of the original details, including pleated origami-inspired handrails and a champagne bar in the main elevator, have fallen like wheat in front of a combine. Still intact are recycled wood cladding on parts of the interior walls and escalator shaft, as well as an egg-shaped pod that contains the washrooms and rises to the centre's top, fourth floor. The flood of natural light and the monumental front rooms mean that finding your way around is intuitive.
The convention centre is structurally connected to its immediately surrounding buildings, and is cleverly sandwiched between the postwar Mackenzie King Bridge and the clunky Westin Hotel. The section of the bridge anchored to land is now being used as part of the convention centre's loading dock.
From his airy Byward Market office, Brisbin says, "We wanted soft, audacious - but not dangerous. My terror was that it would resemble a disco ball." He can let his fears rest. Seen from the National Arts Centre, across the canal, it's possible to believe the new civic building is a volume that is entirely curved, like, for instance, Beijing National Stadium, the "bird's nest" that mesmerized the world during the 2008 Olympics.
In fact, the $145-million Ottawa structure puts its best face forward, the one with 1,036 triangular panes of glass sucked into place within a free-form system of steel tubes, no two alike. The three other sides are relegated to blank-walled banality. Because of the tight site, the box that backs the seductive glass mask is mostly unnoticeable. But, for skaters or cyclists arriving from the south, the unforgiving blankness of the convention centre is a visual assault.
The design-build team and the NCC are currently negotiating whether a media wall with video art would be exhilarating or distracting. Something is absolutely required to soften the blow of the building's south wall - if it can't be moving images, insert a waterfall, please. Or a gigantic white curtain that billows in the wind and says, like the glass front of the centre: Ottawa has a right, for once, to shed its stone peaks and become supple and glamorous. A little late, but still in time for the 21st century.