A hundred years ago Canada’s National Gallery, then an offshoot of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, moved into its second quarters on Ottawa’s O’Connor Street, upstairs from a government fisheries exhibit. A local newspaper of the day praised the move, remarking that proximity to the “better known and more popular” fisheries show could only boost attendance.
Today, with a new and imposing building that is already the talk of the town, the National Gallery hardly needs that kind of help—but its administration is not taking any chances. Last week, in an enterprising public-relations move, the gallery offered an early-morning hot breakfast daily and a 20-minute tour to Ottawa’s unsung movers and shakers: bus drivers, cabbies, hairdressers, hotel employees, tourism workers and virtually anyone who works with the general public.
Contrast: The response to the tour, according to its organizers, was overwhelmingly positive, a sign that the building is likely to be an enormous popular success.
That is in large part because the new National Galleryunder construction for 4 ¥2 years —offers a series of stunning spatial experiences unusual in contemporary architecture and in marked contrast to the humdrum interiors of the converted office block that housed the gallery’s collections for the previous 28 years. “I hope,” said the gallery’s architect,
Moshe Safdie, “that people walking through the building will feel the complexity and range of emotions you experience listening to a piece of music.”
In fact, visitors will be able to walk through the building with Safdie: the architect is putting the finishing touches
to a tape-recorded tour of his creation in which he tells the story of the gallery’s construction and talks about his approach to architecture. But even without the guide, Safdie’s intentions
are clear enough —to provide a building for the quiet contemplation of art that also responds to a written request from the gallery’s advisory committee to give “a sense of approach and a sense of ceremony appropriate to a great national institution.” Grandeur: Every side of the 350,000-squarefoot, three-level building is clad in pink and grey granite from Tadoussac, Que. But it is the south facade, with its glass neo-Gothic tower, that grandly confronts the t city of Ottawa. Still, the I sense of ritual sought by g the architect is nowhere 1 more apparent than in g the entry to the buildS ing. The main doors lead into an entrance pavilion, up a gently inclined, glassed-in Colonnade to the 128-foothigh Great Hall, with its spectacular views of the Parliament Buildings and the Ottawa River. High in the gleaming glass facets of the tower are white, triangular, sail-like blinds operated by remote control to cut down on glare or to close off the cavernous roof on a winter night. For ceremonial occasions, an immense purple and vermilion tent can be rigged from the tower to dampen the hall’s reverberant acoustics.
Light: For the gallery’s art collections, the architect has provided a variety of spaces. European and historic Canadian art is housed in barrelvaulted spaces that resemble the traditional European picture gallery. Filtered light from long central skylights is controlled by solaractivated blinds. To channel daylight to the lower-level Canadian historical galleries, Safdie designed an ingenious shaft lined with the reflective material Mylar and with a system to diffuse the light at the base. The results are highly effective. Said Charles Hill, curator of
historic Canadian art: “The works glow. It is nice to see the collection in an architecture that is worthy of it.”
Safdie is known as an architect who believes that a building lives by light— a belief that occasionally brought him into conflict with some of the gallery staff. There was public disagreement over whether the clean, white spaces designed for contemporary art should be illuminated by natural or artificial light, with Safdie insisting on letting in the sun. The dispute became public when Safdie made a pitch to Communications Minister Flora MacDonald for an additional $1.35 million for skylights. In the end, Safdie got his way. However, the building committee’s requirements banned natural light in other galleries—including the intimate spaces created for prints, drawings and photography, which are susceptible to damage by the sun. Natural light is also banned in the temporary exhibit area as a way to illuminate works.
Just how well that area and its movable walls function will not be apparent until the June 16 opening of a major survey of the work of French painter Edgar Degas, organized by former National Gallery director Jean Sutherland Boggs in co-operation with the Louvre in Paris and New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
Garden: At the heart of Safdie’s vision, says Iranian-born urban planner Nader Ardelan, is “a kind of inner space—the souk, the bazaar, the hidden courtyard.” For visitors suffering from museum fatigue, the architect has provided two courtyards, one with a garden and cloisters, the other with a glass-bottomed pool that looks down onto a lower visitor reception area. Between them is what promises to be one of the hits of the new building, the Rideau Chapel, which was once part of a convent on Ottawa’s Rideau Street. A choice piece of 19th-century neo-Gothic woodwork, it was rescued from demolition in 1972 and re-installed in the gallery.
Already the Rideau Chapel has become a symbol of community involvement that would have been unthinkable with the gallery’s previous quarters. The Friends of the National Gallery have raised $500,000 for the restoration of the chapel, their efforts culminating in a gala evening at the gallery on May 6 with 1,800 guests and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra playing in the Great Hall. “There was electricity in the air,” said Safdie, who attended with his wife, Michal. “People actually had tears in their eyes. There’s one thing about this buildingelitist it ain’t.”
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