How is Ottawa shaping up as our national showcase?

For years federal and city planners have heen striving to make a dream come true — a plan that could turn Ottawa into another Athens. They’ve already spent millions and will spend millions more. But critical taxpayers are already asking —

BLAIR FRASER February 13 1960

How is Ottawa shaping up as our national showcase?

For years federal and city planners have heen striving to make a dream come true — a plan that could turn Ottawa into another Athens. They’ve already spent millions and will spend millions more. But critical taxpayers are already asking —

BLAIR FRASER February 13 1960

How is Ottawa shaping up as our national showcase?

For years federal and city planners have heen striving to make a dream come true — a plan that could turn Ottawa into another Athens. They’ve already spent millions and will spend millions more. But critical taxpayers are already asking —



In sixty years the Canadian taxpayer has spent sixty million dollars improving the city and district of Ottawa. The million-a-year average is a coincidence —actually a third of the whole amount was spent in 1959—but massive spending has been going on for seven years, long enough to give the taxpayer a right to ask what he is getting for his investment in a national capital.

Considered as an ordinary middle-sized Canadian city, Ottawa is irreproachable—it compares quite well with, say, Edmonton or Winnipeg or Hamilton, Ont., which are about the same size. But Ottawa is not an ordinary city. To half a million tourists a year, to about fifty diplomatic missions from commonwealth and foreign countries. Ottawa equals Canada. This eastern Ontario town, with its twin Hull across the river in Quebec, is the only thing the visitor has to judge us by.

What kind of country, then, does Ottawa make Canada look like? Have we got our money’s worth, in this sixty-million-dollar show window?

The figures are impressive enough. The National Capital Commission has bought eighty thousand acres (three quarters of them forest, in Gatineau Park, but still a lot of land). It has built forty miles of parkway, more than half urban, and will build at least fifty miles more. It maintains and adorns the grounds of 125 government buildings, including the three on Parliament Hill. Three million tulips, crocuses and daffodils bloom each year in its seventeen hundred acres of urban parks and parkways. It exercises considerable influence (though not. it insists, any actual authority) over a National Capital Region of eighteen hundred square miles, said to be the largest in the world.

Despite these resounding totals, the casual visitor to Ottawa is seldom awed by what he sees. From the Union Station across the street from the CNR's Chateau Laurier, he looks to his right down a frowsy vista of shops, obscured but not concealed by a tangle of overhead wires on tipsy poles. To his left, beyond Confederation Square and the War Memorial, is a façade of old government and business blocks described by one critic as “broken-down Victoriam” If



he turns to look southward up the Rideau Canal, he is more likely to notice the sooty perspective of railway tracks than the stretch of park along the other bank. And if he climbs Parliament Hill he will see first, not the noble expanse of the Gatineau Hills, but the slummy expanse of Hull, with a mill and a huge pile of pu Ip wood in the foreground, topped by a neon sign for White Swan toilet paper.

The river itself is polluted. Ottawa has twenty-three outlets pouring raw sewage into its opaque waters. Hull adds not only sewage but large quantities of industrial waste. So do other, smaller towns in the neighborhood. The resultant condition can be perceived by the naked eye at thirty yards and by the naked nose at much greater distances. (A modern sewage disposal plant was delayed when the federal government offered to pay only five million of the twenty-odd million dollars it will cost. The city had asked for twelve million and hoped to get eight.)

Beside these unattractive features the fair-minded visitor will also note that Ottawa has a truly magnificent site. If he has been in the city before, he may notice that its natural beauty has been much restored in the last few years. Most of the river front is or soon will be in government hands, and ugly buildings have been cleared away to make open green parks. Parliament Hill has always been lovely, ever since Colonel John By in 1826 foresightedly set it aside for the use of the crown (though Ottawa did not become a capital for more than thirty years after that). Its buildings might puzzle an architectural historian, being nineteenth century pscudo-neo-Gothic, but to me as to most Ottawans they look beautiful.

Beyond these patches of external beauty, Ottawa hasn’t much to offer in the cultural line. Unlike Calgary, Edmonton and other such growing cities, the capital of Canada has no concert hall or theatre. The National Gallery, revived and improved as it has been of late, is still a modest display. Until recently, it w'as housed in one end of the Victoria Museum, which also shows artificial dinosaur bones and a stuffed moose. There the gallery had room to hang only about a quarter of its paintings. It has just moved to new quarters, larger and better, but these too arc temporary, designed as an office building and merely adapted for pictures. The permanent National Gallery cannot be built until the National Defense Department removes the wartime “temporary” buildings which, for twenty years, have occupied Cartier Square. This cannot be done until a new National Defense building is erected, which cannot be done until a site is chosen and a plan approved.

The new National Library has been caught in the same sort of queue, waiting for another set of temporary buildings to be taken off another open square. This move is now at last said to be imminent, but nothing has actually happened yet.

All these things, and many more like them, contribute to an impression of stagnant complacency that infuriates the newcomer to Ottawa and makes the visiting taxpayer wonder what became of his sixty million dollars. Marvels are foretold in the National Capital Plan, of which a scale model has been permanently on view for ten years, but the average Ottawan tends to speak of it as a Promised Land forever receding into the future — and one which, like Heaven, he is in no hurry to reach. He is really quite content with Ottawa the way it is.

The fact is that Ottawa is a delightful place to live. It took me six years to realize this, and some people need even longer, but it is true. To its own citizens, therefore, Ottawa’s faults are barely perceptible. Even the smell of pulp mills across the river, which can smother Ottawa like an ether mask when the wind is right, is hardly noticed after a few years, and trifles like overhead wires are not seen at all. This bland euphoria may account in part for the low voltage, the lack of any visible urgency, in the nationalcapital development.

For all its leisurely pace, though, Ottawa has come a long way in its self-improvement program. Critics tend to forget how far it had to come.

Ottawa was neither a natural capital, like London

or Paris, nor a wholly planned capital like Washing-

ton or Cranberra. It had CONTINUED ON PAGE 57


How &ty and college buikings corn are . with those of the federaL government

Ottawa — our national showcase

continued from page 20

thirty-odd years of stormy life behind it when Sir Edmund Head, then governorgeneral, advised Queen Victoria to choose it as the seat of government for Canada.

It was then a rough shanty town of lumberjacks and rivermen, notorious for its frequent drunken riots. A farmer of the district recorded that whenever his cow came home by way of Sparks Street, which has been Ottawa’s main shopping street since very early days, he had to wash the mud off her teats before he could milk her. Sober citiz.ens of Toronto, kingston and Montreal were shocked as well as disappointed by Her Majesty's decision. They even dared to protest it —a vote against it in the Canadian legislature defeated, very briefly, one of John A. Macdonald’s early governments. (This was the occasion of the famous Double Shuffle, w'hen the defeated government resumed office after two days.)

Goldwin Smith, the expatriate Englishman who became a noted Canadian essayist of his day, described Ottawa as "a subarctic lumber village, converted by royal mandate into a political cockpit." But Sir Edmund Head did not choose blindly when he chose this scruffy hamlet for the queen. He wanted a point of physical contact between French and English Canada. He also wanted a site on which a noble capital, typical of the best in this new country, could be built, and he saw it in the splendid river-side cliff that is now Parliament Hill.

The lumber village, however, was still here, and still growing and thriving. Most of the "old Ottawa" families made their money in lumber, and the lumber barons built those grandiose Victorian mansions that still compose so much of the face of Ottawa. Rideau Hall, the present Government House, is one. Another was the old Edwards house that became, after costly transformations from the fantastic to the mediocre, the prime minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

So when, in 1899, the federal government set up an Ottawa Improvement Commission with a budget of sixty thousand dollars a year to embellish the national capital, it was not working on empty space or untrammelled nature. Right from the start, the planners of an elegant capital had to reckon with the raw. vigorous, complacent town that was Ottawa’s natural self.

They had also to reckon with the fact that Ottawa was riddled with railways. To this day there are about forty miles of track w'ithin the city limits of Ottawa, with a hundred and fifty level crossings and blocked streets. Railways cut Ottawa and Hull into hopelessly separated chunks. They scar the centre of both cities with bands of dingy, soot-covered slum. Everyone who has ever tried to plan the future of Ottawa has named railway relocation as the central problem, which after sixty years it still is — or rather was, until last October.

Last October the greatest single step was taken towards a new and betterlooking national capital. The two major railways and the federal government, through its agency, the National Capital Commission, agreed on immediate relocation of the Union Station that leads trains into the very heart of Ottawa, and removal of the tracks that take them there. Only one railway line will still cut across town (everybody admits that this one is a regrettable but permanent necessity). More than a hundred acres of right-of-way will become available for new parkways and through streets. An-

other three hundred acres, now tied up as railway property, will be released for either parks or new buildings.

In the context, of course, "immediate" doesn’t quite mean instantaneous. It will take time, probably as long as five years, to complete all the work that must be done. But the point is that the work is now about to begin, instead of being vaguely off in the future, at least twenty-

five years away, as it was until the October agreement w'as signed.

Nobody has decided what will be done with the old Union Station, which fills eight acres in the very centre of town, but the commonest guess is that here, at leng last. Ottawa will have its concert hall and community centre. It will also have room for a handsome new throughway from central Ottawa to Hull, with a ready-made tunnel that now carries CPR trains underneath the worst traffic jam in town. This parkway will replace the ugly clutter that now disfigures the

right bank of the Rideau Canal. Altogether the changes will mean the greatest transformation of the centre of Ottawa since the Driveway—a twenty-threemile system of manicured parkway— was begun more than fifty years ago.

Meanwhile, other similar changes are going forward, though they are not yet visible to the casual tourist. About eight miles of crosstown track, already abandoned by the CNR. is being converted into a new' limited-access highway called the Queensway. When the Queensway is finished, as it will be in two or three

years. Ottawa for the first time will have an attractive entrance; visitors will no longer need to creep through the traffic jams of grubby Eastview.

The downtown tracks serve industries and warehouses that will have to be relocated along with the railways, and this too is in hand. On the edge of town is a new industrial area which already is being built up very fast. In new industrial building last year. Ottawa was second only to Toronto and not far behind, though Toronto is four times as big. Rigid restrictions are put on the kind of factories that may be built, for Ottawa has no intention of letting another dirty, slum-creating mill ward grow up like the ones that are now being cleared.

All these things are part of a nationalcapital plan that has been going forward since 1950, slowly perhaps hut not quite as slowly as most people think. A lot of the unspectacular preliminary work has been done, and the next two or three years will see it flower.

Ihc plan itself is the conception of Jacques Greber, the distinguished French town planner who is inspector-general of town planning for all France. M. Greber first came to Ottawa in 1937, to advise Prime Minister Mackenzie King on embellishment of the grounds on Parliament Hill. He has been back at least once a year since then. Ottawa is his baby, his pet. For a fee of only two thousand dollars a year, plus extremely modest expenses, he has supervised every step in the implementation of the plan he drew up (also at Prime Minister King's request) in the years just after the war.

A vital part of the national capital plan is the so-called greenbelt. a band of semirural land that will mark the outside boundary of Ottawa's metropolitan area. Debated for years, fiercely opposed by suburban landowners who wanted to sell to real estate developments at fancy prices, the greenbelt was finally approved in 1958 and about half of it has already been bought. It will contain metropolitan Ottawa in a tidy area where proper city services can be maintained economically, and it will prevent the common municipal diseases of “urban sprawl” and “ribbon development" along the highways. Ottawa within this predetermined area can grow to a maximum population of about six hundred thousand. Growth thereafter will have to spill out to satellite towns beyond the greenbelt.

Buying land for the greenbelt is one way the National Capital Commission spent so much money in recent years with so little to show for it to the casual glance. Another is buying forest land for Gatineau Park, which already is sixty thousand acres and eventually will be seventy-five thousand. Gatineau Park is no mere playground for the residents of Ottawa, though it does serve that purpose too. Primarily it's intended as a kind of national monument to the Canadian wilderness, a way of showing visitors to the capital what Canada looked like when the white man came.

In this sort of thing, the restoration and management of empty space in parks, parkways and so on. the national capital plan is developing with entire success. There is more argument about the positive aspect, the design of the new buildings. Indeed, some people in Ottawa are less depressed about the things that have not been done—slum clearance and the like — than by some things that have been done in the name of beautification.

Not long ago the National Gallery Association, a group of private citizens interested in art. sponsored a panel discussion on "the face of Ottawa" and also circulated a questionnaire on the same

topic among its members. Speakers and questionnaires ail indicated, to loud applause from the audience, that they found Ottawa’s face rather dreary and growing no better.

One of the panel speakers, Mrs. Marjorie King, of the Canadian Welfare Council, said, "The new federal government buildings make Canada look like a tired old man. without enough pension to live on, who has to keep on working anyhow. Or worse still, they make her look like a born-tired young man. without ardor, without enterprise, without imagination, and certainly without a sense of humor.”

Of two buildings in particular, recently completed in downtown Ottawa, she said: “A stuffed-shirt pair of buildings if ever I saw one. They set out to be imposing I suppose, and succeeded in being as pompous as an abstract noun — and they look as if they might last a thousand years.”

The other two panelists were Charles Greenberg, an Ottawa architect, and Prof. Anthony Adamson of Toronto, another architect who is also vice-chairman of the National Capital Commission. Greenberg's remarks about Ottawa were considerably harsher than those of Mrs. King, who was the representative of average citizens. Adamson began his speech by saying "I'm from Toronto," and went on to indicate, delicately but firmly, that if his Ottawa audience thought Ottawa a drab-looking place, it was their job as Ottawans to improve it. He didn't dispute the appraisal itself.

“Dinosaurs in combat”

Right or wrong, these opinions were certainly shared by the large audience, and also by most of those who had answered the questionnaire. The buildings mentioned above. Veterans Affairs and Trade and Commerce, were ranked a poor fourth among four buildings that members were asked to grade. Secondlast was another new federal building, the Bureau of Statistics. Some of the remarks were vitriolic:

"Reminds me of pictures of the capital of Outer Mongolia, and has overtones of a prison. Also suggests roots in rigid political ideas—fascism, totalitarianism.”

"Extremely expensive, but lack any grace, elegance or interest . . . they are a crime against the architects of Canada.”

“A mess—crude Nazi architecture."

"Ottawa has the worst architecture of any city on this continent, or anywhere."

“Gross examples of applied archaeology. and 1937 Kahn-type factory.”

"All new federal buildings have no style whatsoever."

"There is some doubt that the new Veterans Affairs building was actually designed at all."

In fact the buildings that provoked these excited comments are commonplace in appearance—great marble piles, which at close range look rather like grain elevators. From across the river, in silhouette, they look like two dinosaurs about to engage in mortal combat. People who like them, and many do. say they have a certain massive dignity about them, which I suppose is true in a way.

What they do undeniably lack is any trace of originality, style or flair. No one stuck his neck out. in designing them. They are featureless, and they bear heavy upon them (as a British writer, Basil Davidson, once said about another commonwealth capital) the limp hand of bureaucratic art.

Another somewhat different example is the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation building a few miles east of

central Ottawa. It’s a demure colonial structure that one critic describes as “racetrack Georgian." It doesn't stand out as do the Veterans Affairs and Trade and Commerce headquarters. It is not part of the Ottawa skyline, and it looks rather attractive set in its broad expanse of suburban lawn. But it might have been built at any time since the middle of the seventeenth century, so far as external appearances show. As architecture, it is cautious to the point of timidity.

Perhaps this is inevitable, but if so it is a depressing thought. Canada will have spent some hundreds of millions of dollars before the national capital is finished. It seems a pity to think that the main claim to distinction, purchased by all this treasure, will be a tasteful arrangement of empty space and a restoration of nature.

All federal buildings in Ottawa, and indeed all buildings of any sort that form part of the Ottawa skyline, are subject to review by an advisory committee of designers and architects, named by the National Capital Commission. Their qualifications are impeccable. One of them explained, however, why they don’t have much effect on design:

What can a committee do with plans that have no particular fault, but arc simply mediocre? What’s the point in sending them back? There is no guarantee that the next try would be any. better. Unless the plans transgress some particular rule (and plans of this type seldom do) the only thing to do is approve them.

Very different things were said, at the panel discussion and in the questionnaires, about two other new buildings in Ottawa that were not commissioned by the federal government. One is the new Carleton University on the southern edge of town. “My heart lifts every time I see it." said Mrs. King. The other is Ottawa's long - planned, much - cherished city hall, which cost $3.7 million, and was opened by Princess Margaret in 1958. The city hall got an easy first place in the questionnaire ranking, with more points than the two federal buildings put together. (Carleton University was not included in the list.)

The city hall design was the winner of a national contest, in which there were thirty-seven entries. It is almost severely modern, a rectangular structure of glass and gray limestone. Some critics say it is impractical for the Canadian climate, too vulnerable to sun in summer and wind in winter. But it was started while Dr. Charlotte Whitton was mayor of Ottawa, when the present mayor, George Nelms, was her chief critic; and now Nelms is delighted with it. It is his pride and joy—though he admits he was startled and repelled when he first saw the design that the judges had picked.

This also happens to the Department of Public Works, on the rare occasions when it. too. holds a contest for architect's plans of a new building. Quite often the judges pick an entry that the department doesn’t like. This is one reason why few such contests are held. It’s probably a reason, too. why the architects who do work for the department turn in designs which, whatever their other qualities, are certainly not startling.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Canada is not, after all, a very startling country. Perhaps we are as staid and stuffy, as middle-aged and cautious and unimaginative as federal architects are conspiring to make us look, in which case we are getting just the kind of capital we deserve. But if we really are the young and vigorous nation that we think we are, there must be some way to let a visitor sec it. He can't see it now. ^