Collage City

PROJECT Richmond road affordable housing

ARCHITECT James A. Colizza Architect Inc.

TEXT Rhys Phillips

PHOTOS Martin Lipman

Ottawa, like many other North American cities, is experiencing a boom in moderate- to high-density residential development in downtown neighbourhoods. Westboro, a trendy “linear village” stretching along both Richmond Road and what was once the city’s very successful tram line (now a long narrow park) is one such area that has already experienced significant private-sector development. More is on the way. With demographic trends moving towards older, affluent buyers who are increasingly urban-oriented as well as younger professional couples either not ready or unwilling to move to suburbia, Westboro offers a seductive combination. Reasonably priced development sites coexist within an already well established village with bistros, specialty shops, a LEED Gold-certified Mountain Equipment Co-op (2000, Linda Chapman Architect/Christopher Simmonds Architects) and even a more urban-friendly street-based Loblaws superstore.

With few exceptions, however, most of the new six- to ten-storey residential buildings can best be described as unadventuresome in form, unimaginative in detail and prone to brick and stucco colours that one local architect once referred to as “Ottawa oatmeal.” A notable exception is the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation’s (CCOC) social-housing project designed by James A. Colizza Architect Inc. This modest complex is comprised of seven townhouses, 14 stacked duplexes and two unique “raised lofts” that have been humanely scaled, thoughtfully composed and tightly detailed.

Architecture, explains firm principal Jim Colizza, has “a responsibility to stand up for where it is and in a form appropriate to its age.” The three-hectare lot’s triangular shape, bounded by two relatively quiet residential streets as well as a 33-metre stretch of busy Richmond Road generated a three-sided perimeter block wrapped around an interior courtyard. This respects the site’s odd shape while presenting different but appropriately scaled volumes to three varied streetscapes. At the same time, these forms are punctuated by a series of circulation “alleys” that slice sight lines through the complex at various points. “The result,” Colizza maintains, “is an interesting collage of shapes and forms that ensure, as you move by or around the complex, a dynamic visual feast.”

Richmond Road required a response to its steady flow of traffic as well as a treatment able to handle the artery’s diverse “personalities.” The latter includes nearby gaudy and animated car dealerships as well as an ill-defined green space boundary across the street that separates apartment towers from traffic. Colizza’s solution has been to stretch a strong but playful wall of deep red brick along Richmond that “both encloses the guts of the complex and provides sound mitigation for the other units.” To avoid presenting a brutal and isolating face to the well travelled street, this bulwark is fragmented, broken down into irregular brick and corrugated metal volumes, animated by pencil-thin columns, broad and narrow canopies, exposed terraces and raw steel plates.

In its centre, two loft units are suspended between asymmetrical entry podiums to create an “inadvertent” grand gate for cars to enter the inner courtyard. Colizza reports that “some old-timers say the upper white metal central units are like ghosts of the old streetcars that once traversed the site.” Two triangular stacked duplexes bracket this idiosyncratic composition, their east and west walls extended out to shield steel stairs ascending to upper units.

Along Midway Avenue, five three-storey duplex towers, clad in red brick or metal, are stitched together by third-level balconies that jut forward and then wrap back between the units. The more uniform mass of the seven three-storey townhouses facing Hartleigh Avenue is set well back from the street and mediated by a line of mature trees. In addition, its scale is also softened by a pedestrian porte cochre that punctuates this wall and by individualized faade treatments for each unit.

A triangle makes for a dynamic site, such that its different angled planes are simultaneously visible. As such, says Colizza, it was important to limit colours. “While in Finland a few years ago, I experienced how crisp whites were used to create a sense of freshness and to brighten even dull, low-light days.” Colizza, therefore, uses a limited but vibrant palette that contrasts white painted corrugated metal, natural silver Galvalum, and planes of deep red brick with matching mortar. “I use the materials as canvas on which light becomes the medium,” he continues. The rotated directions of the corrugations as well as very simple but varied canopies create even deeper shadows that evolve as light tracks across the surface with time. Large, grey checker-plate steel panels on balconies add bold definition and additional texture.

Inside, Colizza has provided simple units that avoid clutter with open, white-painted spaces enlivened with flashes of brightly coloured walls and floors. Window sizes are maximized. “It is a simple, simple idea–when you have a tight box, open it up,” he states. The two raised loft units along Richmond also boast signature window light-towers to draw in even more light. All the units open out to both the street and the courtyard. In many, including the two-storey loft unit above the porte cochre, the more public area is left as a single open box with a kitchen against an end wall separated only by an island. Above ground, remarkably generous balcony/terraces promote outside living separate from but in touch with neighbours. Each ground unit also has a private yard neatly defined by a white chain-link fence and a custom-designed canopied, redwood gate.

Built at a cost of approximately $300 a square metre, Richmond Road demonstrates that architecture can be both engaging and inexpensive, even for modest housing. There is no safe domestic historicism in Richmond Road’s lively contemporary forms but there is a simple, yet rich materiality that responds well to the demand for both urban and urbane intensification.

Rhys Phillips is Director, Policy and Legislation for Employment Equity at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He has been writing on architecture and urban design for 19 years.

CLIENT Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation Non-profit Housing

ARCHITECT TEAM James Colizza, Anthony Bruni, Paul Cooper

STRUCTURAL Goodeve Manhire Inc.

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Levac Robichaud Leclerc Associates Ltd.


INTERIORS Victoria Colizza

CONTRACTOR Warlyn Construction Ltd.

AREA 28,000 ft2