Capital Improvement

Project Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario

Architects Moriyama & Teshima Architects, Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects in Joint Venture

Text Paul Dubellet Kariouk

Since the debut four months ago of the new Canadian War Museum, much has been written of its architecture. The design is characterized by volumes that both grow into and out of the earth like a geological formation, the leaning walls of its passageways, the fenestration that beams a bilingual Morse code admonishment–“Lest We Forget,” the self-seeding roof draped by riverside flora, the Regeneration Hall that tenuously aligns with Parliament’s Peace Tower in the distance, and the registration of a sunbeam upon the tomb of the unknown soldier inside Memorial Hall each Remembrance Day.

Designed by Toronto’s Moriyama & Teshima Architects in association with Ottawa’s Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects, the Museum contains numerous spatially rich moments such as Regeneration Hall, the eponymous space of Raymond Moriyama’s “regeneration” leitmotif. With the end of the initial fanfare surrounding the unveiling of this 440,000-square-foot structure executed at a cost of $137 million, two major questions arise: what is the cultural subtext of the Canadian War Museum, and in what manner does such a vast institution help to shape not only nationalistic sentiment but its city?

The Museum’s promotional literature begins, “Educate. Preserve. Remember…this mandate will help ensure that the memory and meaning of Canada’s military past will never be forgotten.” But how does this building help its visitors to remember and to preserve memory? Can any architecture really do this and what does it mean to forge a collective memory, specifically in a Canadian context where so many of its citizens, now visitors to the Museum, are implicated as “the enemy” within its exhibits?

The new War Museum is neither “memorial” nor “monument,” but rather “landmark.” The term “landmark” denotes the imminent passage beyond a boundary that serves as a catalyst for repositioning a course of action and applies to at least three fundamental attributes of the Museum: its relation to other national buildings, its technical execution, and its physical relation to its local, urban site in a manner that complements its metaphorical links to the nation.

Reconsidering the manner in which the War Museum would join other national institutions choreographed along the Ottawa River’s banks, the architects assessed the placement of the new Museum within the context of several distinct nearby sites. Comprising the necklace of the National Capital’s Ceremonial Route, this part of the city is a patriotic pilgrimage comprised of conventional architectural monuments. Parliament Hill rises to command the most conspicuous site upon a bluff; the National Gallery presents a massive crystalline tower over the skyline; the low-lying Museum of Civilization locates its undulating, monumental form to create a riverside clearing for itself; Place du Portage, a monument to bureaucratic inevitability, appropriately creates a near-impenetrable staggered wall on the Route’s Quebec edge. Moving in and out of the serrated edges of this Route, the delicately folded, 80-foot copper-clad “tower” of the War Museum slides in and out of view, often imperceptibly from other vantage points in Ottawa. In relation to its national and institutional peer group, it’s hard to consider this building as a “monument” in the conventional sense. The Museum cannot truly fulfill its paradoxical challenge to collectively underscore modern Canadianness and cohesively house Canadian war memory in the context of the National Ceremonial Route. It rightly does not attempt to present an expected, monumental impression.

Much of the credit for the War Museum’s technical innovations rests with the structural engineer, Michael Allen of Ottawa’s Adjeleian Allen Rubeli Ltd., and the building envelope engineer, Ashok Malhotra, of Ottawa’s Halsall Associates Ltd. Allen’s approach utilized three different 3-D modelling computer technologies (including XSteel used by the fabricator, Walters Steel) that permitted the fabrication of the exposed, two-hinge, steel frame structure of the Museum’s Regeneration Hall. This achievement earned him Architectural Category Winner for the Ontario Steel Design Awards and honorary membership in the Ontario Association of Architects. Allen’s structure yielded the Hall’s eccentric formal character that allows it to enigmatically advance and recede from view upon the skyline. Malhotra’s work with the design team enabled the construction of the Museum’s 30-degree canting walls–the building’s iconic feature at close view. It was also Malhotra’s expertise that yielded the 30-foot-tall, site-cast concrete walls that retain the architects’ desire for the rough board-formed surfaces to appear on both the Museum’s exterior and interior while providing proper insulation and drainage. The concrete for the walls employs a high percentage of fly ash rather than Portland cement–responding to the architects’ sustainability concerns.

The technical feature that most disarms the public’s expectations of the Museum is its 115,000-square-foot planted roof that slides up from the adjacent river and over the building, unifying river edge and architecture. In addition to providing insulation, this roof allows the building to position itself in the physical, and moreover, social landscape. Portions of the roof that are fully accessible are structured to support the two-foot depth of soil necessary for the self-seeding wildflowers and grasses, while other portions of the roof (off-limits due to security concerns) are seeded and structured to support the lesser load of a one-foot combination of soil and vermiculite.

But landmarks must serve as stratagems for critical public discourse as well as inspire and teach through their technical refinement. In this regard, it’s the War Museum’s client, not the architects, who stopped short. The Museum administration wanted the building to be complete by 2005 for 60th-war-anniversary celebrations, and cited this haste as the reason to forego an open, public competition. Hence, the architects received the commission in 2001 merely through an internal review of qualifications. The general public was only later invited into the process when three of the architects’ schematic designs were posted to a website prior to design development.

To the architects’ credit, the public discussion that has followed the Museum’s debut is vivid testimony to Ottawa’s bureaucracies that architecture matters and informed discourse is not to be avoided, but nourished as a prerequisite for stimulating an appreciated built environment. When the next major commission for a public building arrives, especially in the nation’s capital, decision-makers must seize the opportunity for generating additional discourse via competition. This is not to say that great works of architecture are born of public consensus; they are not. Nonetheless, public discourse, and not merely the selection of gifted architects is mandatory to foster new, comparable works that will continue to challenge Ottawa’s institutional status quo.

As the Museum’s literature tells us, “the theme of the Museum’s architectural design–“regeneration”–evokes not only the impact of war on the land, but also Nature’s ability to regenerate and to accommodate the physical devastation by human conflict.”

Eating at the Museum’s “Mess” one afternoon with three out-of-town visitors, I tested this rhetoric. Upon inquiring about their impressions of the Museum, many astute reactions arose but none related to “regeneration.” I explained the metaphor, and the visitors appreciated the architects’ sentiment, but were mystified how any architect could expect laypeople to perceive this without explanation or tangible examples. Some architects will cringe at the literal nature of their request, but as this is an educational institution, the advice can’t ea
sily be dismissed. The point is that the general public was moved by the “regeneration” theme and longed for the design team to architecturally amplify this sentiment.

Though the Museum can be likened to an enormous geological feature and bears a myriad of symbolic roles in its national(istic) context, the Museum, due to its extraordinary size, must ultimately be considered as a significant physical element in Ottawa’s “tabula rasa” of LeBreton Flats, where it is a landmark participant in an as-of-yet unbuilt urban context.

Local critics of the Museum project have argued that the “regeneration” enacted on the Museum’s site actually only means “gentrification,” a euphemism for “erasure.” While the Museum spells out “Lest We Forget,” even as it generates a new upscale urban district, it is the culmination of the erasure of a vital working-class and industrial Ottawa neighbourhood expropriated by the National Capital Commission in 1962 that left nothing behind except a sizeable brownfield site.

Such criticism has yet to acknowledge that the initiative to regenerate the site of the War Museum began with an expenditure approximately equal to the building’s construction budget to remediate the brownfield conditions. But the Museum does not attempt to celebrate this fact (which is worth celebrating) through its design. The local flora is allowed to grow over the building from the surrounding areas as if it had been flourishing since 1962 without interruption, and local extensions of Ottawa’s recreational trail system continue seamlessly over this planted roofscape. While the design reconciles itself metaphorically with a restored war-torn landscape, it doesn’t acknowledge the brownfield remediation which precipitated the construction of the Museum. That’s a missed opportunity, but one that may yet be addressed. South of the Museum, the new outdoor public Commons of LeBreton Flats will be constructed, an area intended to gather up to 20,000 people. As the largest outdoor public area of this new urban precinct, it begs to have a design that artfully communicates through its landscape the conflicted history of the Museum/LeBreton site. While architectural works and landscapes are not obligated to become narrators of their own sites’ histories, few recent buildings in Canada have offered the capacity to capture public imagination and media attention more than the War Museum, and, as such, the Museum and its environs are perfectly poised to become sorely needed role models for responsible urban building and environmental practices.

It is unfortunate that neither the Museum client nor other federal agencies recognized this major commission’s opportunity to propel into a national forum a discussion about the need for both the public and private sectors to advocate responsible environmental stewardship. Griffiths Rankin Cook partner and architect Alec Rankin estimates that the LEED process for the Museum would have cost as little as $40,000 and would have earned the Museum at least “LEED Silver” status. Sadly, this was not pursued due to an aggressive timeline and the unavailability of funds. The distinction of LEED status would have underscored the Museum’s contributions to environmentalism for which the architects fought, and would have created publicly tangible criteria for “regeneration.”

A plethora of populist media of the last four months makes evident the national landmark value of the new Canadian War Museum, and any visit to (or over) the Museum emphasizes the invaluable contribution already made by the Museum towards the regeneration of organic life and human vitality to this formerly blighted Ottawa area. Only time will tell in what manner and in what proportions the Museum will ultimately be embraced as a national and local landmark, and the socio-cultural and urban issues probed by the Museum’s design will only emerge fully across a much longer time frame. While such critical issues evolve, it is fundamental to recall that the mandate of this architectural journal notwithstanding, the best architecture is not solely explicated by descriptive text, theory, or even photography. Very fine architecture is first and foremost apprehended as such only from direct, sensual experience, which then has the capacity to inform cognitive responses. Go and experience this building.

Paul duBellet Kariouk is the principal of Kariouk Architecture and a professor in the School of Architecture at Carleton University.

Client Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Architect Team Moriyama & Teshima Architects: Raymond Moriyama, Diarmuid Nash, Jason Moriyama, Brian Rudy, Greg Karavelis, Mark Tholen, Nathalie Marion, Drew Wensley, Gene Ascenzi, John Blakey, Tawnya Clark, Adam Dunn, Shawn Geddes, Roy Gill, Norman Jennings, Aubrey Mcintosh, Karlene Mootoo, Elias Saoud, Phil Silverstein, George Stockton, Ted Teshima, Sandro Ubaldino, Chris Yen. Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects: Alex Rankin, Alex Leung, Earl Reinke, Louis Lortie, Emmanuelle Van Rutten, Natasha Amo, Al Bussiere, Michael Conway, John Cook, Dan Henhoeffer, Jan Kapsa, Eric Laflamme, Tammy Laverty, Sherry Mackay, Greg Manley, Janis Norris, Gina Papoutsis, Peter Rankin, Michelle Sevigny, Martin Tite, Jamie Whaley, Robert Wright, Michelle Zunti.

Landscape Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui

Structural Adjeleian Allen Rubeli

Mechanical the Mitchell Partnership Inc.

Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Civil Stantec Consulting

Exhibition Design Canadian War Museum, Haley Sharpe Design, Origin Studios, Lorimer & Associates

Project Managers Gespro/Genivar

Construction Managers Pcl Constructors Canada Inc.

Area: 41,000 M2

Budget $136 Million Including $21 Million for Exhibits

Completion December 2004

Photography Tom Arban Unless Otherwise Noted