Cabin Fever

PROJECT Rideau Canal Skateway Shelters, Ottawa, Ontario
TEXT Maria Cook
PHOTOS Gordon King

One sign of the coming winter in Ottawa is the lowering of skate shacks into the Rideau Canal basin. This season, when the trucks and cranes withdrew, there was a surprise. In place of the familiar brown wood change huts were curved black steel-and-glass pavilions. The new arrival was greeted locally with equal parts outrage and delight. “All we need is some little place to go inside. All we need is a heater,” one woman complained to the press. Someone else commented online: “It’s world-class and serves only to enhance our international image!”

Fortunately, the source of controversy was financial, not aesthetic. The four new change shelters and three washroom shelters on the Rideau Canal Skateway have already proven to be successful with skaters both for their appearance and user-friendliness. The total cost was $5.4 million, or about $750,000 per chalet, and this includes the consultant fees and installation. The shelters were an easy mark for call-in radio shows in a city used to fiscal restraint; governments are usually nervous to be seen spending money in Ottawa.

In the nation’s capital, the slow progress of projects through bureaucracy means many great projects never see the light of day. Both governments and priorities change. For example, a plan to create a national portrait gallery failed soon after the current Conservative government was elected in 2006. Nevertheless, the new skate shelters on the Rideau Canal were paid for by the federal government’s infrastructure stimulus fund. The deadline to spend the money clearly pushed the client–the National Capital Commission (NCC), the federal agency that manages the skateway–and their consultants to move forward with the project.

The Rideau Canal system, which was originally built between 1826 and 1832 to join the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario at Kingston, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Organized clearing of the Rideau Canal by the NCC for public skating dates back to 1971 when Douglas Fullerton, then head of the NCC, sent staff down one day with hand shovels to clear the snow. Since then, the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink–stretching approximately 7.8 kilometres from Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa to Dow’s Lake beside the Central Experimental Farm–has become a major tourist attraction. About one million visits are made annually to the frozen Rideau Canal by people coming to skate or take part in the annual Winterlude festival every February where events on the ice include figure-skating competitions, music, fireworks and the popular ice sculptures. Adequate washrooms and change huts are not only a comfortable place to defrost or lace up skates, but a necessity.

In use since the 1970s, the old changing huts were in need of replacement. While a variant of the rough-and-ready Canadian winter rink shack may once have served the purpose, the context now is completely different. Representing the national capital identity is now an affirmed design requirement.

Michelle Comeau, NCC Senior Vice-President of Environment, Capital Lands and Parks, observes that “we have to be conscious that at moments the eyes of the world are on this facility. We get visitors from other countries for whom skating on the canal would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” That includes high-profile guests such as First Lady Hillary Clinton who skated there in 1995. Accordingly, the buildings should be welcoming and of appropriate quality for a capital city. Although temporary–the skating season typically lasts about 50 days–the chalets need to complement the public and historic character of the Canal. Comeau notes that a contemporary rather than “folkloric” approach was taken.

Ottawa-based CSV Architects designed the new facilities. Project architect Anthony Leaning relates the curved roof of the shelters, which appear to fold underneath to cradle an interior space, to the vaults of the bridges spanning the Canal. Other curving forms, such as the cut-outs that lighten the steel ribs of the roof, refer to skates and sleds. Wrapped in an asymmetrical zinc-clad roof, the change chalet opens with a wall of glass toward the Canal. The architects compare the build-up of elements on the glazed side of the building–a curving handrail along the exterior, a truss inboard of the glass and colourful graphics applied to the glass–to the accumulation of skate traces, pressure cracks and bubbles in the ice. At night, the illuminated shelters offer a welcoming glow for skaters navigating the length of the Canal.

Birch ply slats on the ceiling, birch panelling and wood window frames provide a feeling of warmth and are accented by feature walls of strong red. Boots can be stowed in red phenolic-clad storage units that neatly incorporate waste and recycling. Energy-efficient features include radiant-heating panels in the ceilings, fluorescent and LED lighting, and suction-system toilets such as those on planes that use minimum amounts of water. Seats, floors and walls are all treated with anti-graffiti polyurethane clear-coat protection.

Careful engineering of the mullions means that each 29,000-kilogram chalet can be hoisted on and off of the ice using hooks on the roof without breaking any of the glass planes. The curved roof design is low enough for bridge clearances and the chalets sit on four permanent piles for exact height and levelness.

At six metres wide and 18 metres long, the new chalets are roomier than the old: 43 people can sit along wooden benches nested into a curving steel structure. Another 12 skaters can fit on the sheltered porches at each end of the changing chalets. New generous ramps ensure barrier-free access. And where the old huts dripped water on skaters’ heads, the roofs of the new chalets are designed to shed snow and rain toward the back of the buildings. The extended roof form over the porches makes a welcoming entry and elegantly reveals the steel-rib structure.

When the new shelters appeared, their assertive personality was a surprise. The program for the original buildings was simple; the rink shack was a well-understood building type. But the Rideau Canal is not your typical neighbourhood rink. Since it was first opened to public skating in the ‘70s, it has evolved into a major public space where tens of thousands can be on the ice during a busy weekend. These new pavilions acknowledge the Canal’s increasingly important role for Canada’s capital city. CA

Maria Cook is a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen who writes about architecture and urbanism.

Client National Capital Commission
Architect Team Anthony Leaning, Richard Gurnham, Sonia Zouari, Igor Kidisyuk, Alex Sargent
Structural Halsall Associates
Mechanical/Electrical CIMA+
Interiors CSV Architects
Contractor Thomas Fuller Construction Ltd.
Lighting Martin Conboy Lighting Design Inc.
Signage Aerographics Creative Services
Area 105 m2 each
Budget $4.9 M
Completion November 2011