Anchors Aweigh

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTO Jana Kriz

There is something primordial about traveling on water, even for short distances. You are informed that you are not supposed to be there not so much by your eyes, ears, nose, palate, or palm as by your feet, which feel odd acting as an organ of sense. Water unsettles the sense of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement.–Joseph Brodsky

Throughout history, the sea has captured the imagination of humankind. We attempt to dominate and defend it while waging battles upon and underneath its expansiveness. As such, it is a difficult challenge to memorialize those who have dedicated their careers to a life at sea, like the men and women who have served and continue to serve in Canada’s Navy.

Designed by a Vancouver-based team consisting of architects Joost Bakker and Bruce Haden of DIALOG in conjunction with artist Al McWilliams, the Royal Canadian Navy Monument was unveiled in Ottawa last May. The majority of Canada’s Navy is based in two ports: Halifax on the Atlantic coast and on the Pacific coast, Esquimalt in British Columbia. To avoid favouring one port over the other, a decision was made to create a national monument in relatively neutral Ottawa, which had the added bonus of increasing the Navy’s presence within a federal context.

In close proximity to the Ottawa River, the monument is sited along an arc between the Canadian War Museum and Parliament Hill. Its promontory site is intended to symbolize Canada’s position as a tri-coastal nation surrounded by the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. On a more prosaic level, the primary reason for commissioning the monument was to celebrate the Navy’s centennial year.

 The most prominent aspect of the monument is a large and gently curved white marble component that is simply referred to as the naval “signature.” Its shape is intended to evoke many things–the bow of a ship, a ship’s sails, stealthy military design, and even aspects of naval attire. The monument’s most curious feature is a gilded orb jauntily affixed to its top. Covered in 24-karat gold leaf, the orb represents everything from celestial bodies to the Navy’s global reach, and perhaps more literally–the mysterious communications equipment concealed within the spherical housing located on most modern-day naval vessels.

The monument’s design strategy was crystallized after McWilliams discovered Joseph Brodsky’s book Watermark. In this work, Brodsky describes how one’s sense of horizontality is unsettled when out at sea–a destabilizing experience that is inherently part of the naval experience. This observation was a critical element that led to the regrading of the monument’s site and the design of the monument’s sloped and slightly fractured granite plinth, a deliberate gesture that gives visitors a sense of unsure footing and the perception that they are perhaps on a ship themselves.

The design team’s greatest challenge was to avoid being figuratively dragged down by didactic symbols of anchors or ships, even though such references cannot be completely avoided. Thankfully, the Royal Canadian Navy Monument stayed the course and serves as a meaningful moment of remembrance along the Ottawa River. CA