I have yet to visit a city that manages, in equal parts, to be as grand and mediocre as Ottawa. Your first glimpse of Parliament Hill in Canada’s capital city is bound to take your breath away. So may the pathways lining the canal and river. But the grandeur of Parliament’s Gothic revival towers, surrounded by Château Style and modern classical buildings, is set against a frenzy of modern and postmodern buildings that violently interrupt this aesthetic harmony. We are left with the impression of a grand project cut short. This is indeed the story of Ottawa.
Ottawa’s built form emerges from the distinct practices of two planning bodies with different powers. The City of Ottawa oversees development through the traditional devices of land-use zoning as well as building and subdivision controls. These powers are not available to the second player in question, the National Capital Commission (NCC), a Crown corporation of the federal government.
Lacking these tools, the NCC has shaped the built environment of Ottawa by purchasing and developing land. One of its most influential moments came in 1950, when French architect and town planner Jacques Gréber, whom the NCC (then the Federal District Commission) had commissioned to create a master plan for Ottawa, submitted his General Report on the Plan for the National Capital.
Reading Gréber’s report over sixty years after it was written provides a glimpse into one man’s aspirations for a beautiful capital, following the teachings of the City Beautiful Movement. The young nation, Gréber believes, is ready to take “full cognizance of its intellectual and artistic culture." If man’s aesthetic aspirations are ignored, Gréber foresees nothing short of “ultimate social dissatisfaction and unrest.”
Gréber does not conceal his disdain for the city’s aesthetic deficiencies. He deplores the “depressing aspects” of Ottawa’s treeless streets, whose buildings, “whatever be their particular architectural merits, seem to be disorderly, and clash with neighbouring structures." He is horrified by the disorder of unregulated street publicity and the ubiquitous utility poles eating up the street, sidewalk, and sky.
“Nothing is more depressing than the appearance of such streets, and nothing is so unworthy of the National Capital," Gréber writes. He concludes by proposing a subcommittee on aesthetics, composed of architects and other professionals. He believes that aesthetic factors must be controlled through zoning and by-laws.
Following Gréber’s plan, the NCC successfully created riverside parkways, recreational pathways, protected green spaces, and even managed to relocate Ottawa’s central railway. But the plans for boulevard-like highways and grand, harmonious architecture never materialized. Gréber’s vision was the victim of the NCC’s limited planning jurisdiction, which only applied to lands that it owned.
The City did not fully cooperate either. A 1967 publication prepared by the City of Ottawa Department of Planning and Works titled Urban renewal: Ottawa Canada acknowledges that “except for the major thoroughfare, parkway, and railway proposals, never was adopted formally by the City as an Official Plan under the Planning Act of Ontario."
Meanwhile, the City’s primary planning concern seemed to be socioeconomic, not aesthetic. Beginning with the premise that “housing in many parts of Ottawa cannot be considered adequate for human occupancy in this day and age," Urban renewal proposes redevelopment, rehabilitation and conservation as solutions.
During the same period, developments in architecture were taking place across the country. Modern architecture in Canada took longer than its European and American counterparts to break free from revivalist styles. The International Style did not take hold until the 1950s, and many of the prominent modern skyscrapers of Toronto and Montreal were not built until the 1970s.
By then, Ottawa was also changing to reflect this new architectural taste, and Gréber’s City Beautiful ideas must have seemed, more than ever before, like a relic of a bygone era. The city that would emerge was distinctly modern and, being largely outside the jurisdiction of the NCC, would never see aesthetic harmony written into its zoning as Gréber had hoped.
What urban planning and architectural forces shaped the built form of your city?
Credits: Photos by Nour Aoude. All data and images linked to sources.