Editorial: Behind the Controversy

Shirley Blumberg, FRAIC, and Barry Padolsky, FRAIC, advocated against the planned Memorial to the Victims of Communism.
Shirley Blumberg, FRAIC, and Barry Padolsky, FRAIC, advocated against the planned Memorial to the Victims of Communism.

As the year comes to a close, the misguided plans for a Memorial to the Victims of Communism adjacent the Supreme Court have happily changed (see CA, February 2015 and May 2015).

The new federal government has announced it will relocate the Memorial from its contentious site, and restart the competition process on a new site.

This is not a simple case of reason prevailing, but rather a hard won victory led by a coalition of design-sector individuals and organizations. Shirley Blumberg of KPMB, Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky, and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) were key players in a strategic campaign opposing the memorial, and delaying critical decisions surrounding it until the new government came into place.

Padolsky first raised the alarm over a year ago, when he realized that a large-scale memorial was slated to land near the Supreme Court— on a site that he knew to be reserved for a major judicial building. He wrote an open letter to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which was published in the Ottawa Citizen. Blumberg added her clout as soon as the competition results were announced; as a jury member, she was under a confidentiality agreement that prohibited her from speaking out sooner.

A group of architectural organizations rallied together around the cause. The RAIC, Ontario Association of Architects, Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, Canadian Institute of Planners, Council for Canadian Urbanism, and Heritage Ottawa issued statements asking that the government respect the area’s Long Term Vision and Plan and move the memorial to a different site.

National and international news media brought the memorial to public attention—criticizing the misallocated site, brutalist design, ballooning costs, corrupt process, and partisan politics behind the project. A petition opposing the memorial gathered over 5,000 signatories.

Padolsky was the public face of much of the opposition—the “memorial man,” as the Globe and Mail put it in a recent profile. He fielded questions from journalists and led weekly conference calls with a growing group of core stakeholders opposed to the monument.

Behind the scenes, Blumberg was figuring out how to prevent shovels going into the ground before a fall election was announced. Consulting with politically connected contacts in Toronto, she determined that legal action would be needed. With Padolsky and the RAIC, she lined up Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ to take up the case. Heritage Ottawa also joined as a litigant, and Canadians nation wide provided financial support.

When the NCC decided to allow site decontamination to start in late June, the litigants pulled the trigger and filed suit. And not a moment too soon—the papers were filed in court at noon the day after the NCC board meeting; that morning, Public Works staff had already staked out the site for digging.

The lawsuit pointed out that according to the National Capital Act, site preparations couldn’t begin until final design approval had been issued for the project. It was enough to hit pause on the backhoes, preventing the memorial from moving forward for a crucial few months before the beginning of an election campaign.

My folder of e-mails related to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism topped 1,000 items some months ago. And while the issue of the memorial now seems to be safely resolved, the coalition of design organizations isn’t done yet. It’s now advocating for new measures that would protect the Long Term Vision and Plan for the area around Parliament Hill—and require meaningful public consultation for modifying those plans.

Their efforts set an inspirational roadmap— showing how, by engaging in public policy, architects have the capacity to influence government decisions and public opinion.