A Banking Legacy: Bank of Canada Head Office Renewal, Ottawa, Ontario
By the time Arthur Erickson tackled the design of the Bank of Canada Headquarters in Ottawa in the late 1960s, he had demonstrated mastery in concrete at Simon Fraser University, and made forays into using glass in his pavilions for Expo 67 in Montreal and the 1970 world exhibition in Osaka.* The Bank of Canada presented him with challenges in creating glass architecture at a different scale: the prestigious site covered an entire city block in downtown Ottawa. In addition, there was the need to integrate the existing 1938 Bank of Canada, a neo-classical building by Marani, Lawson & Morris (later Marani, Rounthwaite & Dick).
To accommodate the Bank’s growing number of employees, Erickson positioned two 12-storey glass towers on either side of the original Bank. An 80-metre-high atrium, topped by transparent pyramids, linked the three buildings, drawing inspiration from Roche and Dinkeloo’s recently completed Ford Foundation Building in New York. In a gesture of openness difficult to imagine today, the atrium was accessible to the public. Its garden court became a much-appreciated oasis in the Capital’s densely built downtown core. The outer skin of the complex was composed of light- and heat-reflecting glass, while patinated copper horizontal and vertical elements—matching the green hues of the nearby Parliament buildings—broke the uniformity of the façades.
Shortly after the building was completed, Toronto architect and critic Macy DuBois wrote a mixed review of it. (See CA, June 1978.) He felt that “the all-glass façade, in our present state of perception, is unresponsive to the environmental realities.” On the other hand, DuBois expressed great enthusiasm about the Bank’s innovative open-office layout: “The Bank of Canada is an important contribution in office building design and we all should be grateful for such careful work.”
Some forty years later, things have changed considerably. In 2010, an 5.0-magnitude-earthquake shook the region, damaging the 1938 building. Post 9/11, security has become a growing concern. Finally, the last few decades have seen tremendous technological advancements, not just in the world of communications, but also in the development of energy-efficient materials.
What did remain stable, though, is the Bank building’s ability to adapt to change. In 2013, the institution commissioned Perkins+Will, along with a formidable team of professionals and advisors, to update the 77,575-square-metre facility. The designers were tasked with two major objectives: to address performance and infrastructure deficits of the facility, and to modernize the Bank as a workplace. Over the three-year-long, $460-million project, Perkins+Will made a multitude of changes, from upgrading the earthquake resistance of the building (which was at about 40 percent of the contemporary code requirement), to installing a new system of fire sprinklers (which previously only existed in select areas). Moreover, the solution they adopted to replace the obsolete mechanical systems proved key to the Bank’s in-depth transformation.
In their efforts to be as deferential as possible to the original scheme, the architects began the design process by organizing a two-day charrette. They brought together several of Erickson’s contemporaries—including longtime collaborator and friend Cornelia Oberlander, Hon. MRAIC, and architect Keith Loffler, MRAIC, who worked on the bank project with design architect Jim Strasman, FRAIC—along with experts such as conservation architect Julia Gersovitz, FRAIC of EVOQ.
The intense work session led to a number of recommendations, which proved highly useful as Perkins+Will considered their options to modernize the Bank’s headquarters. It became obvious early on that any change to the complex had to be anchored in a restructuring of the building’s heating and cooling systems. From the beginning, the exterior skin created large energy loads, and substantial floor area on each level was used to accommodate bulky HVAC equipment. On the outside, two 12-storey copper-clad bays—flanked and topped by ventilation louvres—marked the presence of the mechanical rooms.
In the original system, fresh air was heated or cooled in the mechanical bay of each floor before being circulated in a floor-level perimeter trench and delivered through grilles. The system occupied a lot of space and, by today’s standards, was extremely inefficient. Additionally, according to Keith Loffler, Erickson was not particularly happy with the look of the complex’s east and west façades with their mechanical bays, nor with the way the flow of the open plan was interrupted by the mechanical units at the building’s perimeter.
As they searched for a satisfying solution, Perkins+Will took a closer look at another feature of the original scheme—its waffle ceiling system. They came up with the idea of integrating a radiant heating and cooling system in the upper portion of the original 30-inch-deep coffers. (They also used the coffers to conceal fire sprinklers.) As well, they created a dynamic buffer zone along the towers’ periphery by inserting a second glass skin. The former mechanical system was entirely removed, freeing substantial floor space, and the copper sheathing used on the exterior of the bays was replaced with glass.
Inside, the work environment was completely remodeled in keeping with Erickson’s original intention to create open office spaces throughout. Floors were raised slightly to accommodate cabling, with access provided through removable triangular metal tiles. The Chicago arm of Perkins+Will assisted in redesigning the office areas and developing new spaces such as an innovation lab and knowledge centres. Partially inspired by colourful Canadian banknotes, they transformed the offices into a series of dynamic—one could even say joyous—workspaces. With a spirit more often found in start-ups than in conservative banking establishments, employees can now work from just about anywhere in the complex: at their assigned desk, on a terrace atop the roof of the 1938 building, or in any of a plethora of new collaborative spaces.
The Bank’s revamping is done with such discretion that it might have gone unnoticed, had it not been for the closure of the atrium to the public. That provoked an uproar among the most faithful protectors of Arthur Erickson’s heritage, although the notion that such a space should still be open to anyone and everyone seems somewhat idealistic in this day and age. Nevertheless, the design of the garden court was worth preserving because it embodied an idea dear to Erickson—that of creating strong connections between architecture and nature. Cornelia Oberlander, who was eventually retained as a consultant on the project by landscape architects DTAH, implemented a scheme in keeping with Erickson’s original vision of indigenous trees rising in the enclosed atrium space. Three planted mounds were left in place, but the 1970s water feature was removed to create a work and lounge area for the Bank of Canada staff.
Another decisive step was dislodging the Currency Museum from the lower floors of the 1938 building, where Erickson had placed it, and replacing it with meeting rooms and a conference centre. Heritage architect Julia Gersovitz’s team restored the building’s formal front entrance hall, off Wellington Street, and refurbished a suite of offices for the Bank’s Governor and Deputy-Governor in the historic edifice.
The museum was relocated under the East Plaza, which was totally remodeled by Perkins+Will in collaboration with DTAH. Arthur Erickson had drawn several ambitious—but unbuilt—schemes for the plaza, and it is said that he eventually lost interest in this exterior space as the Bank reneged on his ideas. For years, a rather uninteresting raised plinth with a few pyramidal shapes and scant furniture stood where the now-vibrant plaza currently presides. Lead architect Andrew Frontini, FRAIC, says: “the East Plaza is where we expressed our voice.” The universally accessible plaza now includes several triangular elements with tiered seating, which incorporate entrances and skylights for the remodeled museum.
Having shown an amazing level of abnegation working on the iconic Bank headquarters, perhaps the architects went slightly overboard while designing the one space where they were given a greater amount of freedom. The plaza could have been more abstract, or at least slightly more restrained. The multipurpose pyramids rising from the ground seem too literal in their evocation of Canada’s mountainous landscapes, and the vocabulary used for the two glass ventilation pillars (doubling as lighting columns) appears out of sync with other elements of the design scheme.
But these quibbles should not detract from the major accomplishments of this project. With the latest alterations to their headquarters, the Bank of Canada has proved once again its impressive and continuous commitment towards excellence in architecture. Perkins+Will and its collaborators must be commended for their tremendous—and humble—efforts in adapting the complex to contemporary realities while respecting the original design. The architects’ search for authenticity extended to every corner of the building—even its rooftop. Having to replace the roof’s Plexiglas pyramids, they identified the original supplier, still in business, and found out he had preserved the molds used in the 70s. Now, that is respect.
Odile Hénault, a Montreal-based critic and consultant, is currently an instructor at the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.
Photos by doublespace photography, unless otherwise indicated.
*For an in-depth study of the Expo 67 and Osaka 70 pavilions, see Izabel Amaral’s doctoral dissertation, Tensions tectoniques du projet d’architecture : études comparatives de concours canadiens et brésiliens (1967-2005), Université de Montréal, 2010.