New guide explores the architectural gems of the national capital region

The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, 199 Sussex Dr. Andrew Waldron believes this is the best designed building in the capital. Photo: Peter Coffman

In 1983 a book called Exploring Ottawa was published. Written by the respected heritage expert and architectural historian Harold Kalman, it was a guide to the architecture of the city big and small. There were few copies and it went out of print all too quickly. But it was a treasured reference for architectural historians and others.

One of those who still has a tattered copy is Andrew Waldron, who is an architectural historian and works for Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions as a heritage conservation manager. He also teaches at Carleton University’s school of architecture and was a longtime employee at Parks Canada.

“We held onto them for dear life. Mine is in terrible shape. It was out of print very quickly. We all worked with this book but it was out of date. So many things have happened. So many buildings had been either demolished or built.

“In 1983 the National Gallery had not been built, the Museum of Civilization (now History) had not been built. All of these transformative buildings have come and changed the city.”

Andrew Waldron is the author of Exploring the Capital.

He knew a new guide was needed. Necessity being the mother of invention, he got to work. And now in time to mark the sesquicentennial Exploring the Capital: A Guide to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region has been published.

Waldron felt he wanted to produce something lasting to mark the 2017 anniversary year.

“This can be something that visitors and scholars and interested locals can have on their bookshelves and enjoy the city that is beyond Parliament Hill and the other iconic buildings.”

In effect, Waldron has fashioned 11 walking, cycling and/or driving tours that take readers through neighbourhoods across the breadth of Ottawa and over the river into Gatineau.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada Building, 233 Gilmour St. Photo: Peter Coffman

“I felt I had to include Gatineau. Together we are 1.3 million people. We should be more connected so really that’s the landscape of the region.”

The tours go into neighbourhoods such as Sandy Hill, Lowertown, the Byward Market, along the Rideau Canal out to the Kanata area and east to Cumberland. He has entered some parts of the city that have not really been examined, he believes, such as the Alta Vista neighbourhood.

“I wanted to make sure that there were buildings featured that were not so popular and less well known areas such as Alta Vista. No one had done that part of town.”

One marker of the passage of time for Waldron is the recent death of Robert Campeau, who was one of the city’s great builders in the 1970s. Campeau’s Place de Ville complex is featured in the book for example.

“I also hope the book will be a catalyst for thinking about the community, about who we are. When I came here in 1994, I was very excited to move here from southern Ontario. I could walk out my door and there were so many quality buildings

Attempts to stick a modernist addition on the venerable Chateau Laurier a “big disappointment,” Waldron says.

Waldron believes Ottawa is on the cusp of a major transformation that will come with light rail transit and the LeBreton Flats development.

“We are always comparing ourselves to three port cities: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. We aren’t a port city. We are a trading city. We are large.” And we have to start thinking that way. He believes the city will be a “world-known” city in coming years.

Ottawa-Gatineau is also a government town and because of that much discussion about the community is “committeed”.

So, in a real way, Waldron also hopes the book will open a dialogue with citizens and connect them to their architectural environment.

“I want to present buildings that people might walk by but not know their stories. So there are … buildings that are modest, I have cottages, I have simple homes, I’ve got stories about people. Architecture is also not just about the physical building. It’s about the relationships and the stories behind them.”

We also don’t really know, broadly, our own history, he says. There is, he adds, no chief historian at the City of Ottawa or with the National Capital Commission.

“Planners, they love to talk about visions for the future, but there are too few historians in the city. They are key to telling story of the past that informs the present and the future.”

In Waldron’s opinion, the best designed building right now in Ottawa is: “It’s probably the Ismaili delegation building on Sussex Drive where Aga Khan foundation is housed. It’s fantastic. Every time you go in there you are impressed.”

He also likes Moshe Safdie’s reimagining of old Ottawa City Hall (now the John G. Diefenbaker building). “A lot of people don’t like it but it is a beautiful building.” The Canadian War Museum is also impressive. “This building just emerges out of the landscape.”

And the interior of the French Embassy, built during the Second World War, on Sussex Drive “is probably one of the best art deco interiors in North America.”

These structures at Vincent Massey Park on Heron Road were designed by Hart Massey in 1958. Photo: Peter Coffman.

He is also partial to designs by Hart Massey, the legendary Ottawa architect whose modernist home sits in Rockcliffe Park.

“He has several buildings that have been overlooked,” Waldron says. “One is the Ignatieff House a modest home where the family of George Ignatieff lived.” Former Liberal leader and intellectual Michael Ignatieff is a member of that family.

Waldron’s own specialty is in modern architecture in Canada. He says many examples of this period are in the capital region.

Of course Ottawa-Gatineau is constantly changing and evolving. Several major buildings are getting makeovers or have received one. Some work, he believes, some don’t. One that does work is the addition of a beautiful glass lantern to the Museum of Nature building. “That’s effective and evocative. It’s about taking an old building and adaptably reusing it.

“I have worked in this field for a long time. The  most fascinating places are where someone has taken an old building and done something  sensitive and smart.”

The addition to the Chateau Laurier, meanwhile, is a major disappointment.

“I think the architect doesn’t recognize the importance of the Chateau Laurier. It’s a national historic site. It’s significant because of some of the architectural qualities built into it.

“If you put a modernist box on the back you aren’t really getting a sense of respecting that space.”

When they get a project, Waldron says, some architects typically want to design something, to leave their mark.

In Waldron’s opinion, school is still out on the addition to the National Arts Centre, designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto.

“It has altered the original design intent, but it has resolved some issues with the original building. It’s hard to work with a refined brutalist building. They are opening up a lot of it and it used to be a very enclosed space.”

Waldron’s guide profiles hundreds of buildings, but hundreds more could have been included. Maybe that will make for another edition, he says.

Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guide to Ottawa-Gatineau (Figure 1)
Andrew Waldron, with contributions by HaroldKalman, Photographs by Peter Coffman

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.