It is not hard to call Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night to mind while standing here. Twilight, at the intersection of Beechwood Avenue and St. Charles Street in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood, and as the sky deepens to medium and dark blues, a swirling, dancing constellation comes to life.
But it’s not up there: it’s over there, on the wall of that new condominium building. And some of those stars are, well, rather square.
However, with the towering spire of the old Église Saint-Charles (1908) taking the place of van Gogh’s cypress tree (or the tiny spire in the painting!) and the ample foliage, it’s a pretty good simulation of the master’s famous work.
But, in reality, all architect Andrew Reeves and the Linebox Studio team were trying to do with their Saint-Charles Market project was find a friendly way for the eight-storey building to have a conversation with its new dance partner.
And it is quite a dance, as the new building dominates as it pulls out to the St. Charles Street sidewalk, then tucks in as it approaches the church – where the starry wall is – while finally getting very close indeed before it curls around to embrace the church’s back end as it meets the Beechwood Avenue sidewalk.
It’s a building that deserves it: built to serve the working-class Francophone population, the brick-clad, wooden neoclassical building was for decades a hub, a gathering place, a beacon even, of the community. It was also the birthplace of a secret society, the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, formed in 1926 for the “defence of the right to education in French and the advancement of Francophones in the public service,” according to Janik Aubin-Robert in the Heritage Ottawa newsletter (Vol. 40, No. 4). It was also designated a heritage building in 2014 after being sold by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.
“The church … has a little cell down [in the basement], we don’t know what it was for,” Linebox COO Melissa Reeves says with a laugh. “We met so many people who were baptized here, married here. … There were all kinds of community groups; but it ties into the materials selection, like the terracotta [cladding] to create something that would stand on its own without competing with the church.”
This ‘dance’ wasn’t an easy architectural problem to solve, since the project sits on an island of land bordered by three streets. While one is a commercial/retail thoroughfare, of most concern were the 1½-storey cottages (some with top-ups), flat-roofed, century-old semi-detached houses, and other quirky dwellings along St. Charles and Barrette streets. Despite the economic need for density on the site, the team (and the City of Ottawa) wanted to allow the wooden belfry to remain the dominant vertical feature.
Two solutions presented themselves: the first was to create three-storey ‘townhouses’ along Barrette, complete with sidewalk-level front porches to engage with the street (yes, they are rather abstract and only defined by three protruding rectangles, but when I visited there was activity on those porches despite the rain). The other was to pierce the building envelope on both sides and create enormous glass walls that playfully display the floor levels in the concrete elevator shaft; these walls decrease the building’s bulk while allowing Barrette homeowners to still feel connected to the churchyard. On the Beechwood side, the steeple proudly ‘prints’ itself (via reflection) onto the glass.
And speaking of printing, an image of St. Charles’ rose window has been pressed into the lobby concrete, and cut-outs on the metal balcony walls feature the pattern as well. Levels seven and eight are pushed back and finished in metal siding; not only does this also visually lighten the building, the silver picks up on the silvery-white colour of the belfry (which now has butterflies inside of it rather than a bell).
It’s a clever way to respect the church while adding more than 50 large condominium units – Linebox calls them “horizontal homes” – to a neighbourhood. “What I like about this one is seeing opportunity when no one else did,” says architect Andrew Reeves, who was also part of the development group that purchased the site but has since stepped away. “So there were multiple bids on this. … I think that design innovation showed that there was a potential financial return on something that no one thought had financial opportunity; that’s something that needs to be talked about more, that good design has good financial returns.”
And there were returns, as all but one (penthouse) unit has sold. In addition, a real community has formed within the building, says condo board president Bill Reynen: “We have a gardening group … and they’re developing a planting plan for the building; we’ve got an arts group that gets together [and] provides recommendations for artwork for the hallways; we’ve got our social group, and this is all in the first year of operation.”
The church forecourt has been reborn as a community gathering place as well. Last summer, the city blocked off a section of Beechwood Avenue and used it as a “focal point” for a street festival. “We had food, beverages, buskers,” says Mr. Reynen, who lives in a 1,700-square-foot unit, “and at one point in the evening I was watching everything going on, and there were drag queens entertaining children on the steps of the church, and I thought ‘this is a community I can get behind.’”
While the church basement amenities space is almost ready, the main floor, which is gearing up to be a restaurant, is still under construction. Mr. Reynen says residents are chomping at the bit to dine on the patio underneath the ‘stars,’ which animate the façade no matter the time of day (as do the many slot windows and jaunty coloured glass, a Linebox staple).
It’s an interesting project for other reasons: the church itself was not ‘parted out’ to private owners; downsizers unwilling to part with their six-person dining tables were attracted to the larger units; and puzzle parking (stacked parking that can move horizontally and vertically) not only saved space, it’s given owners the opportunity to meet one another.
“Melissa was interviewing all of the people [in the building] and it’s interesting to hear them say ‘Oh, it’s added to my life,’” finishes Mr. Reeves. “I like to believe that architecture does have a direct impact on your day-to-day existence. It makes it better.”