Design for a National Capital

A bird’s-eye view of the fifty-year plan for the beautification of Ottawa

J. F. C.SMITH July 1 1938

Design for a National Capital

A bird’s-eye view of the fifty-year plan for the beautification of Ottawa

J. F. C.SMITH July 1 1938

Design for a National Capital

A bird’s-eye view of the fifty-year plan for the beautification of Ottawa


OTTAWA,” a visiting architect once remarked, “has still the finest site in the world for a capital—in spite of everything that’s been done to destroy it.” It is true that Ottawa has a magnificent site. And it is true that in the past there has been a certain lack of appreciation of the particular possibilities and limitations of that site.

Because of this failure to realize its full potentialities, Ottawa has sometimes suffered from comparison with other national capitals. The city, unlike Washington and Canberra, was not deliberately planned for such a role. Neither has it ever been replanned, as have Paris and Moscow, on a scale befitting its national significance. It was, as every schoolboy knows, selected eighty years ago as the seat of the Government of Canada by Queen Victoria. Ottawa, like other Ontario towns of the period, was then a place of several thousand inhabitants, dependent for its existence on a number of small industries.

No special study was given to the planning of such communities. Regardless of topography, the “checkerboard” or "gridiron” plan was almost universally emoloyed. While ideally suited for use on a broad, level plain, a rigid pattern of this kind becomes both inefficient and expensive when the natural features of the site are irregular. Compromises, as the present street layout of Ottawa shows, were invariably necessary between the scheme as it was visualized in the surveyor-general’s office and the practical considerations encountered in its execution.

The average city might contrive, as most have contrived, to make the best of so great a handicap of birth. Yet the requirements of a national capital are somewhat different from those of the average city. The need for adequate zoning, transportation facilities and utility services is, for example, identical in each case. But, in addition, the placing of Government buildings, the situation of monuments, and the location of squares, driveways and approaches, make the planning of a capital city a problem of remarkable complexity.

A beautiful building would lose much of its appeal if the individual parts —the windows, doors and roof— were not subordinated to the design of the structure as a whole. So it is with a city. The latter may possess great charm, but unless its buildings and groups of buildings bear a proper relationship to the entire composition, its finest effects will not be realized.

For the official recognition of this principle, credit is due William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Prime Minister has long been well acquainted with the steps that must be taken if Ottawa is to become a national capital in the true sense of the word. Largely as a result of his interest and initiative, the distinguished French town-planner, Jacques Greber, architect-in-chief of the 1937 Paris Exposition and the author of the contemporary plans of such centres as Marseilles and Philadelphia, was retained by the Dominion Government to study Ottawa’s problem and submit a report.

Transformation of City Centre

HIS solution is a most comprehensive one, and displays a masterly grasp of the peculiar requirements of the capital. The drawings that accompany the report present a scheme, reminiscent in its formality of the “grand manner” of 18th century planners, that is no less noteworthy for its artistic quality than for its practicability.

Greber proposes, in effect, the complete transformation of the central part of the city over a period of from twenty-five to fifty years. In charge of the execution of. the project will be the Federal District Commission, the body responsible for the famous driveway that bears its name. Work is to be undertaken on certain features at once; others are reserved for future development.

As may be seen from the plan illustrated, the focal area will be the district bounded on the north and south by Wellington Street and Laurier Avenue respectively, and on the east and west by Nicholas and Elgin Streets. This civic centre, providing a spacious setting for existing and proposed buildings, will become the nucleus of a wider regional plan at such time as the Government deems an enlarged federal district necessary. The secondary elements—proposals for other sections of the city-—are struck pianissimo to the dominant note, and of course in harmony with it.

The National War Memorial forms an integral part of the central scheme. Its site. Connaught Place, will require extension, and the former Post Office building is now being razed. The huge monument, rising sixty feet above its base, will face south. An impressive reminder of Canada’s sacrifice, it is now in Ottawa, though not assembled, and will probably be in place before the end of the year. The contract for its erection has already been let.

All approaches to the circle on which the Memorial will stand have been designed to render accessibility to, and passage through the area, easy and direct. Its shape is particularly well suited for the gyratory control of traffic, and the absorption and release of traffic flows can be regulated with a minimum of interference.

Elgin Street is to be widened and the National War Memorial, situated on its axis, will terminate the vista from

the south. In keeping with its importance as a major thoroughfare, the overall width of the street will be increased from sixty to 160 feet, creating a ninety-foot roadway flanked by thirty-five-foot boulevards on either side. The work may be done this year. It will necessitate the removal of old Knox Church at the southeast corner of Albert and Elgin Streets, and the adjoining city tourist building.

The next objective will be the construction of a bridge to provide an outlet from Albert Street to Nicholas Street. Clearing the Rideau Canal and the railway yards, this new artery will relieve the present congestion of traffic during rush hours at the “bottle-neck” immediately east of Connaught Place.

When the Memorial has been erected and the Albert Street bridge completed, the first steps toward realization of the Greber plan will have been taken. The second phase of the project, involving further and more far-reaching changes and additions, deals with those proposals intended for ultimate development.

The most important of these is the southerly extension of Connaught Place over a concrete plaza that is to cover the Rideau Canal almost the entire distance from Queen Street to Laurier Avenue. To carry out this scheme, essential in the creation of the civic centre proper, it will be necessary to raze those buildings in the triangle formed by Elgin Street, laurier Avenue and the canal, that were not

demolished in erecting the National War Memorial and widening Elgin Street. Here the broom wielded by Jacques Greber will sweep away not only the registry office and the decrepit structures occupied by the city police and fire departments, but also the Bate, Woods, and Canadian buildings, the Roxborough and Aylmer apartment houses, the houses along the north side of Laurier Avenue, the Ottawa Boys’ Club, and the hydro-electric sub-station.

New Union Station

Y\7TIAT will take their place? According to the plan, * * public squares, monuments, new buildings. The whole area, the heart of Ottawa’s corporate life, is to be planned, co-ordinated, made beautiful. Architecture will be orderly and dignified. New buildings, set in the midst of spacious surroundings, are to be in reciprocal relationship to one another. Greber’s use of the axis, with a climax at either end, will mean emphasis on the civic importance of monuments and buildings. Landscaping, careful as to scale, will provide an appropriate background for architectural features. Fine avenues of trees are to enclose the

squares and line the approaches to key buildings. Garden and park treatments will lx* given to many blocks. Islands and circles, aside from their purely ornamental function, will aid in traffic control. The lawns, in summer, will be bright with flowers.

A new Union Station is proposed on the site of the present railway yards between Rideau Street and Laurier Avenue. The plan calls for removal of the existing station and elimination of the "blighted area”—the district now taken up by the tracks and the old, deteriorating Nicholas-Besscrer neighborhood. The centre line of the proposed new station, were it projected west, would strike a point about the middle of the block bounded by Albert and Slater Streets.

1 he railway terminal is, in a sense, the main portal of a city; and it is important that visitors arriving by train should be impressed with the beauty of the capital. Accordingly, the main entrance of the station will be placed on the west. Persons using it as an exit will emerge from the concourse onto a wide traffic area on the great new plaza. Before them, they will see a magnificent park dedicated to the memory of Colonel By, the builder of the Rideau Canal, extending as far west as Elgin Street. A second exit, on the east, will open at a lower level on Nicholas Street.

Facing the station and occupying the entire block between Elgin, Metcalfe, Albert, and Slater Streets, a new public building will close the western end of By Memorial Park. Other public buildings, beginning with the new post office proposed for the northwest corner of Sparks Street, will be erected along the west side of Elgin Street as far south as Laurier Avenue. Two more will be built on the east side; one on the old City Hall property, the other on the vacant land just south of Slater Street. Between them, east of the present site of old Knox Church, will stand a monument to Colonel By.

The Albert Street bridge is to fit into the station structure as part of a platform. Wide ramps on each side cf the building will lead from the upper level on the new plaza to the lower one on Nicholas Street. At the latter there will be subways to Rideau Street and the Chateau Laurier, as well as ample room for bus terminals. It will be faced by a traffic island, with the existing courthouse and jail removed to clear the section through to Waller Street. South of this development, directly in front of the University of Ottawa buildings, will stand a park, and south of it again, a plaza. New wide thoroughfares will take care of increased north and south traffic.

With the present station demolished, considerable open space will be left fronting on Rideau Street. Provision is made here for a “public transportation or tourist” building. To relieve the traffic situation at the “bottle-neck." the Banque Nationale building and other structures on Rideau Street east to Sussex Street will be taken down. Doomed too by the plan is the Daly building on the block opposite. Its removal will make room for a planted area south of the National Revenue building that will face a new gyratory connection binding Wellington Street to Mackenzie Avenue and Sussex Street. Sussex Street is to be widened, and a broad boulevard will separate it from Mackenzie Avenue.

Major’s Hill Park behind the Chateau laurier, the site of Colonel By’s old home, will fx* extended north to Nepean Point. Now within this area, the building of the Government Printing Bureau will be removed. A small plaza in the centre of the park is to lead to a statue designated on the Greber plan as that of King Edward VII. The surroundings of the National Research building will be improved by razing the old lumber mills on Sussex Street now used as Government offices. Eventually a wide approach to the main entrance will further enhance the stateliness of the Research building. As part of a scenic development, new bridges over the Rideau River will provide a foil for the natural beauty of the falls.

Extensive changes are projxjsed for Wellington Street, at present Ottawa’s only monumental thoroughfare. On the north side stand the Parliament buildings, the new Confederation and Justice buildings, and numerous old outworn structures shortly to be demolished. On the south are, among others, the buildings occupied by the American and Japanese embassies, the Bank of Montreal, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and the Bank of Canada.

A new Government departmental building at Lyon Street is planned as the first unit of a future group on the north, and provision is also made for the erection of more Government buildings on the south from time to time as required.

A Government Mall will extend from a point in line with the Mackenzie Tower of the West Block, back of the Confederation and Justice buildings and the new departmental block, almost as far west as Pooley’s bridge. The Mall will pass in front of the new Supreme Court building that is to stand on the cliff overlooking the Ottawa River behind the Confederation building. In front of it, on the vacant property between the present Justice building and the site of the new departmental block, a place is reserved for a memorial to King George V.

Throughout, Greber has paid special attention to the satisfaction of the needs of modern forms of transportation.

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The automobile, for instance, not only vastly accelerated the rate of flow of traffic, but brought with it the parking problem. In his scheme Greber has provided for four enormous garages to serve the central part of the city. The first will be beneath the Union Station plaza, the second under the boulevard area on the site of the Daly building, the third under Major’s Hill Park, and the fourth, the largest, beneath the Supreme Court building. In all, from 2,000 to 3,000 cars will be accommodated underground.

Admittedly the projiosed changes will be costly. Just how costly, Government officials are reluctant to say. So far, provision has been made for only a one-year program of demolition and construction. If it is decided to proceed with the work in its entirety, abolition of local authority and the creation of a federal district similar

to the District of Columbia is possible. Like Washington, located in a separate parliamentary “state,” Ottawa would then have its own administration, its own laws, and freedom from provincial or municipal control.

Great enterprise in the field of town planning is always distinguished by a combination of statesmanship and technical skill. The plan put forward for a new and worthier Ottawa is the product of the foresight and idealism of Premier King and the creative genius of Jacques Greber. The scheme is not only important because it will substitute order for chaos. It is not only important because, when carried to completion, it will make the national capital one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The real significance of the proposal lies in the confidence it expresses in an expanding, richer, more highly cultured future for Canada.