February 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam
A rendering of the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism, planned for a prime site down the street from Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Ottawa’s plans for a Memorial to the Victims of Communism are under fire, and rightly so. From its overly prominent site to its literal depiction of brutality, the project would be a misguided addition to our capital city’s Parliamentary Precinct.
The memorial was originally proposed to occupy a plaza on Wellington Street just west of Bay Street, midway between Parliament Hill and the National War Museum. In November 2013, Public Works switched to a more prominent location between Library and Archives Canada and the Supreme Court—a property that since the 1920s has been reserved for a new building for the Federal Court.
Generations of planners envisaged a future building that would, along with the chateau-style Justice Building and Ernest Cormier-designed Supreme Court, complete a “Judicial Triad” that frames a lawn facing Wellington. This urban grouping would parallel the nearby “Parliamentary Triad” consisting of the East, West and Centre blocks.
The 5,000-square-metre site is appropriately scaled for a building. It’s extravagant for a memorial, especially one that would occupy the bulk of the square and rise to a 14.3-metre height. This size, says architect Voytek Gorczynski, is necessary for the memorial’s conceptual design, which includes a one-centimetre-
square concrete tile for each of the 100 million victims of Communist regimes. In choosing the site, Public Works has willfully ignored the repeated recommendations of the National Capital Commission’s planning and design advisory committee.
The design is literal in its depiction of violence. A series of pixellated, folded triangular planes resolves into a three-storey-high documentary image (as a placeholder for the to-be-determined photo, the renderings show a mass grave from the Polish massacre at Katyn). At the centre is a life-sized statue of a fallen body. This is a far cry from the austere poignancy of the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or Maya Lin’s minimalist Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, both of which do far more with much less.
The design also calls for the names of 1,000 victims of Communism to be inscribed on commemorative walls and pathways. The Tribute to Liberty—the group that formed to advocate and raise funds for the monument—offers these name slots in exchange for donations of $1,000. Donors are also invited to record a testimonial, which will be accessible to visitors who scan the wall with their smartphones. This highlighting of donors effectively renders the project into a private memorial, subsidized by public land and funds.
To be fair to the designers, they’ve been given little time to develop their scheme. The planned timeline rushes in 18 months from the initial call for expressions of interest last May to the ribbon-cutting this fall.
The project is planned in the midst of a monument frenzy, tinged with political rather than historical motivations. Of the 28 existing and planned memorials in Ottawa-Gatineau listed by the Department of Canadian Heritage, nine will have been created since 2006, when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. The Memorial to the Victims of Communism, along with the National Holocaust Monument, are scheduled to be unveiled before the fall federal election.
Harper’s last completed commemorative project, the War of 1812 Monument, is controversially sited on Parliament Hill’s East Block lawn, overlooking the National War Memorial in Confederation Square. It’s been criticized for depicting firearms being discharged, as well as for inaccurately portraying an Aboriginal figure as a scout rather than a warrior. But since it’s a sculpture, it could at least be moved as political tides change and more appropriate ethical and social visions arise.
The Memorial to the Victims of Communism would not be as easily displaced. Before plowing ahead with this space-grabbing project, the federal government needs to listen to its own expert advisers and to Canadians at large—and look past election dates to the long-lasting consequences of their monumental mindset.