Glass Menagerie

PROJECT Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Padolsky, Kuwabara, Gagnon Joint Venture Architects (PKG): Barry Padolsky Associates Inc. Architects, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, and Gagnon Letellier Cyr Ricard Mathieu Architectes
TEXT Janine Debanné
PHOTOS Tom Arban, Maris Mezulis

When David Ewart designed the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (VMMB) in 1904, he combined the Neo-Gothic language of Ottawa’s original Parliament buildings with Beaux Arts ideas and inspiration from the greatest museums of the day, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Unfortunately, Ewart’s original building was constructed on unstable ground, and its foundations were inadequate from the outset. A century later, the building’s contents were at risk–irreplaceable plants, animals, fossils and minerals from the original collection of the Geological Survey of Canada including mineral samples found only in one region of the planet, the bones of an enormous blue whale, and taxidermic mounts of extinct birds and endangered mammals. The commission to renovate the VMMB, explains architect Bruce Kuwabara, began not so much with a vision, but rather a blunt set of architectural problems that needed to be addressed: the building was sinking, the environmental systems were inadequate, and the existing circulation and services did not fulfill the ceremonial requirements of a treasured national museum dedicated to Canada’s natural history. More challenging still, the building that existed was beautiful, and long beloved by the citizens of Ottawa. The question then became: “What was an architect supposed to do?” In the face of these difficult challenges, what eventually resulted for the newly renovated Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) was a great architectural moment for the nation’s capital.

With a complete overhaul of its structure, systems and envelope, two new room-sized elevators that combine freight and passenger movement, and a renewal of interior spaces and displays, the CMN may now receive international standard exhibitions and accommodate increased numbers of visitors whether they arrive alone or in classroom-sized crowds, on foot or in wheelchairs. Beyond the numerous upgrades demanded by the project brief, the renovation also addresses delicate questions of shared cultural memory, of symbolic meaning, and of new methods for renovating heritage buildings in Canada. The renovation has also produced a compelling urban architectural landmark at the terminal point of Metcalfe Street on its famously offset axis from Parliament Hill: a new glass tower on the building’s main façade which is also visible from the Queensway. There is also a new east/west-oriented wing along the building’s south façade that is clad in polished Kodiak black granite and bush-hammered St. Marc limestone. This slender addition sits away from the historic building to create moat-like planted courtyards, and also supports a new roof garden landscaped with indigenous plants, thus providing a cleaner urban definition to the site’s southern edge.

As with any historic conservation project, the architecture’s merit can be measured through the intelligence of achieving a balance between old and new. This can be seen in the successful but “sacrilegious” interventions of the new glass tower and butterfly staircase and the new service wing, in addition to substantial seismic upgrading. These new “dynamic buffer zones” (DBZ) were respectfully executed so as not to obscure past qualities and the meaning of the original building. In several fundamental ways, the project has already proven its success. Over the past decade, we have seen several renovations of historic museums that prefer to agitate its original architecture through the addition of a distinct and distinctly expressive form–the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is one well-known example. The genius of the CMN and its significant architectural merit lies in the design team’s ability to integrate its future with its past. The outcome of a protracted nine-year effort, the VMMB project is certainly a bold but quiet work of rigorous problem-solving and finely tuned construction that has resulted in a distinctive new architecture that braces and depends upon the original structure for its success.

The discreet structural solution to the problem of the clay soil and local seismic requirements has also yielded improvements to the building’s environmental systems while maintaining a sense of historic continuity. To achieve this, a section of floor up to one metre in width was removed along the entire perimeter of the building, opening a vertical cavity into which a braced steel frame was inserted and anchored to the historic stone shell. The W310 x 143 steel members run from the new foundations to the roof and are tied back to the new floor slabs–which act as structural diaphragms–with 20mm-diameter stainless steel rods at one metre on centre, thus stabilizing the building from earthquakes and settling. This new insertion, which effectively amounts to a secondary building envelope, provides a well-tempered interior that is protected from Ottawa’s extreme weather conditions. At present, the museum’s interior begins at a distance of one metre inward from where it once did, pulled away from the stone walls into an independently ventilated and earthquake-proof environment. Thanks to this DBZ, the museum’s galleries can now support carefully controlled temperatures and higher humidity levels while the old walls can continue to exist as they have for almost 100 years.

In the age of the spectacle building, such apportionment of expenditure is admirable. In turn, the material narrative sets a crisp and restrained palette of glass, concrete, and smoothly finished dimensioned stone against the historic building’s warmer palette of split-faced and carved limestone, wood and mosaic tile. Inside, wood from original floors was reused in the renovated salon, the boardroom and the third-floor west temporary exhibitions gallery. What results is not a competition, but a dialogue of subtle contrast, with shared geometries and clear distinctions between old and new.

The three-firm architectural joint venture known as PKG was comprised of Ottawa-based Barry Padolsky Associates, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) from Toronto, and Gagnon Letellier Cyr Ricard Mathieu Architectes (GLCRM) from Quebec City. The consortium describe the project as a collaboration that relied heavily on the talents of many experts, such as renowned Leda clay expert Gordon McRostie and structural engineer Dan Carson. Architect Barry Padolsky’s meticulous research and long-term involvement with the building backs KPMB’s design initiatives. Padolsky had been in charge of an earlier series of renovations, so his firm was able to handle the project’s extensive heritage components. GLCRM was responsible for detail development of the building envelope throughout the new additions and in the old building, in particular for devising the DBZ. The consortium hired Ottawa architect Paul Dolan to supervise construction and to preserve the overall project vision on behalf of the joint venture. Countless other architects like KPMB project architect Brent Wagler dedicated extended periods of time in Ottawa from inception to completion. The fact that many architects and engineers had to appear before the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office and the National Capital Commission several times a year for the better part of a decade to explain and argue each proposed alteration to Canada’s first museum building lends depth and substance to this work. For Kuwabara, the project became as introspective as a thesis. The other authority the architects were obliged to yield to was the even less forgiving Leda clay basin extending over 30 metres beneath the stone structure. In this renovation project, the additional weight of new construction resulted in removing unnecessary mat
erial in exchange.

At odds with contemporary museological requirements, the architects’ desire for natural light to filter into the body of the museum finds expression through a series of glazed cuts into the new envelope, explains Wagler. These openings are centred on the exterior wall’s windows where discreet clues of the seismic bracing–a blurred silhouette of a ladder or a steel member–can be seen. However, as opaque shades screen most of the exterior windows for curatorial reasons, the telegraphing of the fenestration to the new interior is rarely fulfilled. The bird gallery and several ceremonial rooms are exceptions. Making the enormous effort and artifice of “display” possible, the service sleeve embodies the museum’s very raison d’être–it has become the backbone to the gallery experience in which the public can admire at close range specimens that have been extracted from their original settings. The new configuration also inverts the building’s original mode of displaying glass vitrines containing the collections of the Geological Survey of Canada centrally positioned in the VMMB’s wings.

As to questions of historical continuity and cultural meaning, the architects chose to give importance to the museum’s stone tower that was never fully realized. The clay soil caused the original crenellated central stone tower to severely lean away from the building’s façade, so to Ewart’s great frustration, he hurriedly dismantled the weighty tower before the building’s opening in 1912. Ever since then, the Neo-Gothic structure had lacked a vertical resolution and symbolic connection to the Parliament Buildings. The new seismic upgrades allowed a new tower to be supported, but this one would be much lighter. The “Queen’s Lantern,” as it is known, is made almost entirely of glass and is commandingly positioned and contained by a recessed central bay. Inside the lantern, a processional “butterfly” stair connects to the upper floors and organizes a belvedere to the city with a viewing platform. The triple-glazed structural glass panel-and-fin assembly hangs from roof trusses that rest on four pairs of cylindrical columns, each 100 feet in length, that rise through the lantern. The trusses tie southward into the new internal elevator cores on either side of the atrium. The columns also support the stairs, which in turn, provide lateral triangulation. The entire system rests on a new raft foundation poured after excavating a full storey of clay soil. The details and materiality of Ewart’s original stone building are kept intimately near, and made noticeable through the new architecture’s frame.

Kuwabara emphasizes the goal of revealing the old building for new appreciation, and of making historical connections at many scales–from the urban realm all the way down to the tilework on the atrium floor. In a remarkable interstitial area between the brick bearing wall at the front entrance and the “apse,” the visitor can study the steel system propping up the old building. Inside the turrets, which now contain new egress stairs, the stone is unfinished and crudely exposed. The dialogue of old and new structure is most obvious on the lower level where there are teaching areas, an animalium, a cinema, and washrooms. A floating wall clad with some of the cream-coloured glazed bricks that had once lined the entire museum shell (they were removed to compensate for the added weight of the steel frame) becomes a backdrop to two architectural models, and lends privacy to the washroom entrance. Inside, natural light breaks through the windows, and stainless steel partitions sidestep the massive cylindrical columns. The atrium, with its Pompeiiesque mosaic floor, gains a new presence due to the taut lines and soft glow of the Queen’s Lantern that now flanks it. Glazing was removed from the central arch to intensify the dialogue between the two spaces, and new tilework in the atrium artfully reinterprets the old pattern. And a paint colour researched by Padolsky–a buttery cream–gives fullness to the museum’s central space. “I would have preferred red,” states Kuwabara, “but Barry insisted on the historical colour, and he was right. It’s not red, but it has a body.”

Almost anyone who remembers visiting the museum during any of the four decades prior to the renovations recalls with fondness the unpretentious museum with its dinosaur room that could be rented for sleepover birthday parties, and its magical dioramas from the 1960s. These mimetic mises-en-scène of Canada’s mammals in their habitats brought together the fruits of taxidermy, model-making and painted landscape scenes (many made by Manitoba artist Clarence Tillenius), all inside rounded fibreglass shell containers. The signage was simple pre-digital signage. In one example, the birds of Canada were gathered together in a cylindrical diorama inside an almost pitch-black room, complete with a sound reel of bird cries–and it was like being there with them in Canada’s imagined wild. Fortunately, many of the dioramas were preserved and rehoused in the new museum. Unfortunately, some of the original experience of wonder is lost, amidst the interactive screens and mediating devices of contemporary museology. The aims of the architects and of the museum curators did not always harmonize entirely, and this is to be expected. But the new architecture, borne of an intense process of analysis and understanding, has given the VMMB a much stronger presence than it had before. On many registers and at many scales, the VMMB renovation does what great architecture is called to do: orient us more deeply in culture, history and place. Canada’s oldest museum and the Canadian public have been extremely well-served. CA

Janine Debanné is an Associate Professor at the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism at Carleton University.

Client Canadian Museum of Nature
Architect Team Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects: Bruce Kuwabara, Brent Wagler, Luigi LaRocca, Chris Couse, John Allen, Bill Colaco, Yekta Pakdaman-Hamedani, Shabbar Sagarwala, Andrew Gunn, Brian Lee, Jose Emila, Jill Greaves, Bruno Weber, Walter Gaudet, Thom Seto, Tomislav Knezic, Virginia Dos Reis, Carolyn Lee, Lauren Abrahams, Lang Cheng, Bradley Hindson, Norm Li, Lilly Liaukus, Tyler Sharp, Esther Cheung, Meagan Gauthier, Francesco Valente-Gorjup, Anna Baraness, Taewook Eum. Barry Padolsky Associates Inc.: Barry Padolsky, Louise McGugan, Mike Kelly, Eric Fruhauf, Elizabeth Saikali, Ursula Clarkson, Danica Lau, Mike Labine, Jason Lowe, Grant Stewart, Tony Hamilton, Peter Elliott, Crystal Eryuzlu, Janice Hamacher, Rene Mariaca. Gagnon Letellier Cyr Ricard Mathieu Architectes: Marc Letellier, Michel Gagnon, Simon Brochu, Pierre Michaud, Suzanne Castonguay, Vincent Lavoie, Réal St-Pierre, Jean-Sébastien Laberge. Paul Dolan–PKG Resident Site Architect.
Structural Halsall Associates Ltd.
Mechanical/Electrical Genivar Consulting Group
Landscape Corush Sunderland Wright
Interiors Padolsky, Kuwabara, Gagnon Joint Venture Architects (PKG)
Contractor PCL Constructors Canada Inc.
Area 250,000 ft2 (220,000 ft2 existing, 30,000 ft2 new construction)
Budget $150 M
Completion May 2010