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October 11, 2008

Ottawa Isn't Rome

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Rome -- Imperial and Renaissance -- seems to have been on the minds of architects and planners of Washington, D.C. and many state capitals in the United States. Domes, columns, pilasters and other Classical details abound.

Ottawa, Canada's capital, took a different architectural route. Perhaps it was a slackening interest in classically-inspired styles such as Greek Revival and growing interest in Romanesque and Gothic styles (probably thanks to London's rebuilt Parliament). At any rate, Parliament Hill is utterly different from Washington's Mall.

The above link offers a useful historical overview, so I'll sketch only some points needed to set the scene for my photos below.

Ottawa was designated Canada's capital in 1859, some eight years before the British North America Act of 1867 created what essentially is modern Canada (as opposed to colonial Canada). Among the factors for Ottawa's selection was that it was comparatively safe from attacks by the United States. That's because Ottawa is situated at the point where the Rideau Canal reaches the Ottawa River. The canal was completed in 1832 to preserve Canadian logistical connections in the event of yet another U.S. invasion. (Water-borne communications -- key, before railroads -- between Toronto and Montréal had been along the St. Lawrence River, a stretch of which borders on the United States.) The canal is about 125 miles long, 12 of which had to be dug and the rest being existing waterways. Once completed, boats and barges from Toronto could exit Lake Ontario at Kingston, take the canal to Ottawa and then head downstream on the Ottawa River, reaching the St. Lawrence just upstream from Montréal, totally avoiding the U.S. border.

Topographically, Ottawa has Parliament Hill which forms a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River. Across the river is Gatineau, Québec which is part of the capital area. The east end of Parliament Hill drops off to the Rideau Canal near where it joins the river. On the other side of the canal is the Rideau area which offers the points from where I took some of the photos.


Sighting down Wellington Street. Don't see any marble or columns.

A comparatively recent addition to the Parliament Hill complex is the Supreme Court building. The white façade is out of character, but the roof isn't.

Here is the centerpiece of the hill -- the Parliament Building.

And this is a view of its backside taken from the Rideau area. The building in the foreground with the tapered roof is the library, which escaped the fire that destroyed the previous parliament structure.

Same viewpoint, less zoom. The light colored building on the left is the Hotel Laurier, one of Canada's great railroad hotels. It was built by the Grand Trunk Railway which was later merged into the Canadian National. The light structure at water level is the first lock of the Rideau Canal.

The Laurier as seen, seriously wide-angled, from across Rideau Street.

The Rideau Canal as seen from the bridge to the left of the Laurier.

View of the Rideau from canal level.



posted by Donald at October 11, 2008


I think that's the Chateau Laurier, not the Hotel Frontenac.

IIRC, the Frontenac is in Quebec City.

Posted by: Brent Buckner on October 11, 2008 1:43 PM

Minor correction: The Frontenac is actually in Quebec City. That's the Ch√Ęteau Laurier.

Posted by: Nick on October 11, 2008 2:20 PM

A very strange proportion for an Art Deco building (the Supreme Court), and the roof structure is terribly out of place, stylistically.
Number of Google entries told me the architect Ernest Cormier was from Montreal, where he's known for a number of handsome Deco buildings, including his own home, later purchased by Trudeau, and in his younger years was a winner of Prix de Rome award in Paris. So how could he be responsible for such an offense against good taste?
This article gives the answer, how:
The original art deco design was modified -- the flat roof replaced by a vaulted one, which created a huge attic for the Supreme Court's library.

But of course. Influence of patriotic Champions of Uniformity and Divine wishes of the Court Justices.

How familiar.

I'm currently involved in a team project of one of the counties in Georgia: the local Judges insisted on a bastardly version of a classical columns and frieze added to an essentially modern building.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 11, 2008 2:20 PM

Brent, Nick -- Thanks. Corrected. Should have checked that. I was in the Frontenac, the Laurier, the Royal York ... etc., etc. and eventually they blend.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 11, 2008 2:46 PM

Correcting an omission:
it should be
"team project for Courthouse of one of the counties in Georgia"

Posted by: Tatyana on October 11, 2008 3:54 PM

Well, since no one else wants to volunteer, let me be the first: what a beautiful city!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 11, 2008 5:11 PM

Oh no no no, I quite disagree. As Donald notes, the white facade is out of character but the roof is not. Trudeau was a good friend of mine, it so happens, as is his daughter Sarah, and he was a great admirer of the Supreme Court building.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on October 11, 2008 7:44 PM

Ottawa truly is a beautiful city; I had the pleasure of living there for three years, and I still enjoy visiting, whenever I can.

Posted by: Will S. on October 11, 2008 9:27 PM

Although raised in Oregon, I attended graduate school at the Unversity of Ottawa. I chose it because they gave me a full scholarship for an M.A. In English. The department head had mistaken my humble Washington undergrad school Whitworth for Whitman, a very prestigious school.

Thatcher had bought out many English academics and as a consequence they had taken second careers in Canada. I really got a pretty good education from them and from my Canadian instructors.

But, Ottawa was lovely to live in. European ethnic foods, Franco-Canadian cookery and etc. The canal and its contiguous parks, the government buildings, the fall foliage, the museums, the bluffs overlooking the river and sister city - it was a very good place to get my degree. The people were very kind, too. Nearly universally so. Although, the graduate literary magazine I wrote for went into full "fuckin Yanks" mode when it came over the radio that a cruise missile had hit Baghdad.

The English department was housed in a literally Dickensian structure that was, while a firetrap and drafty, more charming than not.

No, it's a fine town with good folk and a very active, nearly professional level amateur theater.

In passing though I must remark that it was odd that these Canadians were very much against that blood for oil war. It's the coldest world capital behind Ulan Bator and they have large heated tunnels that pass underground to avoid the bitter winds and cold above ground. Additionally, the profs were pretty disgusted with "that woman Thatcher" yet they were often on pretty good pensions and had been given a wonderful and vivifying second career opportunity because of her

Posted by: Larry on October 11, 2008 9:53 PM

Ottawa is lovely indeed, especially (and mostly) the areas Donald photographed. Outside of that narrow slice of downtown and the Canal, Ottawa devolves into the usual nightmare...Kanata? Orleans? Hunt Club? etc. Indeed, not too far from the Canal locks, just down the street in fact, lies the Rideau Centre, an utterly undistinguished shopping centre (I'm referring to the inside) that somehow manages to look like NOTHING AT ALL from outside. I mean it...stand anywhere outside the Rideau Centre and try to describe what it looks like. It doesn't look like anything...I mean it's impossible to even describe..and not because it's unique or somehow contrives to look like nothing at all. It's like it's not there. I'm not kidding, by the way. I would challenge anyone, Donald included, to describe the exterior of the Rideau Centre. Can't. Be. Done. It's like it somehow doesn't have one. Weird.

It's back, however, is a genuine Kunstlerian nightmare, one of those blank-faced facades along whose face you can see the occasional terrified scurrying pedestrian trying desperately to get away from the Void of that slab of nothing.

Some nice neighbourhoods too. Next time you're in Ottawa, check out the Village, New Edinburgh, even the Glebe, and drive around Rockliffe drooling at the manses.

Lots of great fripping wodges of suburban vehicular desertification, though.

My own neighbourhood, right in the heart of downtown, has been the target of attempted gay Village-ification...not much success so far. But it's fun, raffish, and everybody here is weirder than I am! Home sweet home.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 12, 2008 11:28 AM

Oh no no no, Patrick. Surely not weirder?!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on October 12, 2008 7:25 PM

Thanks, Donald, for the terrific photos of Ottawa . . . and Montreal . . . Western New York . . . ancient Rome, etc. I think what I like about your photos is that they are photos of touristy places that are often done in a non-touristy, maybe "scholarly," way. By that I mean they show the famous places of general interest but from more interesting and informative angles. For instance, I suspect that if you were to take a photo of the entrance to Disneyland, you would also take a photo of whatever quotidian structure might be directly across the street from the entrance to Disneyland -- which I think is really interesting and useful info (at least to me).

What I also like about your Ottawa photos is that the I got to see more of, and learn more about, the Rideau canal -- which has always intrigued me. (Although I didn't even know it's name, location or function, I remember cutting out photos of it from a magazine in the late 1980s to help illustrate a project I was doing.)

One of the nice things about a canal like the Rideau (and also, so it seems, about the canal that makes up River Walk in San Antonio), is that it is apparently feasible to put the pedestrian walkway in very close proximity to the water -- I suppose because there is no need to worry about flood protection or great changes in water level due to tides. Yet although the water is as quiet as a pond, the body of water does, in fact, actually lead somewhere -- so it is thus an interesting body of water to take a boatride on, or walk along.

I think I've also seen photos of people ice skating on the canal -- and again this seems like special fun because the ice skating "rink" is really a "path" that goes somewhere.

- - - - - - -

I didn't get a chance to comment on your recent art book post, but I had wanted to mention that it seems to me that, even with the current economy, we are nevertheless really living in affluent times --with one of the indicators being the incredible availability of photos, especially color photos, of art AND architecture that were not nearly as readily available (I don't believe) even in affluent 1950s or 1960s. (And, of course, in the last ten [?] years or so, the internet and high resolution monitors, printers, etc. have greatly increased this availabilty even more!)

I say this because I remember in the late 1960s when I took a college course on modern architecture, the instructor complained (and although I was only an naive undergraduate then, even now I suspect he was right to complain) that there really weren't that many books available on the topic, especially ones with good photos.

And, in fact, one of the things that struck me at the time is that it seemed that whatever architectural book one did find (in a bookstore or in a library) it always had the same TIRED black and white photos of the same buildings. For instance, there was a building in Boston by Alvar Aalto that was much admired at the time, and it seemed that each and every book that had an illustration of it had the same one or two tired black and white photos -- photos that really didn't do the building any justice, by the way. (Although I'm not that much of an admirer of the building, when I did get to see it in person, I was very surprised at how much better it was in person.)

Now part of this may not have been technology or lack of affluence -- but rather a lack of curiosity or imagination. Even today it seems one can get only get one photo of Louis Kahn's Salk Institute of La Jolla. But my guess is that if YOU were to go there, we would get to see what the place is really like!

- - - - - -

While Ottawa does seem to be beautiful, it doesn't really seem to me (at least from these photos) to be a beautiful (GENUINE) "city." It's more like a beautiful (pseudo-city) "seat of government," like Washington, D.C. While this may seem like a churlish comment, one thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that real cities can, and sometimes do, have their own kind of beauty -- but oftentimes people seem intent on imposing the easily photographed beauty of pseudo-cities (really "cemeteries" for living bureaucrats and visitors) upon REAL cities -- which, as mentioned, can, and often do, already have a different kind of beauty all their own. (This was one of the problems with 1950s urban renewal.)

- - - - - -

Also, a tentative stab at an an explanation of why bold and sometimes weird stripped down orthodox modern architecture tends to shine more in photos, while more detailed ornamented traditional architecture may shine more in drawings:

If this is really true in the first place, one of the reasons may be that pretty much any building can come across well in photos where the building is surrounded by a lot of open space / greenery (see these pictures of traditional buildings in Ottawa) -- BUT modernist buildings tend to be surrounded by open spaces more often and also NEED to be surrounded by open space to be visually effective; while traditional buildings are less likely, in the post "city beautiful" world, to be surrounded by open space, and better able to work in a crowded, real city, context anyway, but this is difficult to capture in a photo (and "easier" to capture in drawings, which unfortunately don't carry the "punch" of photos).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 12, 2008 10:02 PM

Benjamin Hemric: While Ottawa does seem to be beautiful, it doesn't really seem to me (at least from these photos) to be a beautiful (GENUINE) "city." It's more like a beautiful (pseudo-city) "seat of government," like Washington, D.C...

Or like Bonn and Canberra. Good call, Benjamin. You've got it exactly.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 13, 2008 3:49 AM

Dearest darling Sister:

The denizens of my neighbourhood do seem to match me in the mental oddity department (at least) and exceed me considerably in their physical eccentricities. If you were to grace our town with your presence, and you saw me walking down Bank Street by my building, you'd go, "Who's that normal-looking guy? Seems out of place here."

I, of course, would then disprove your assertion of my normality by jumping you right then and there. Pooooo-lice!!!

Sister, I am intrigued by your casual comment that you were friends with Pierre Trudeau. That is sooo cool. Mind spilling any details (at your place, if DP's wary of a thread hijack)?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 13, 2008 3:55 AM

Benjamin -- Thank you for your kind remarks about my photography.

If those overtones you mention are present, it's not normally by conscious design. When I take pictures I try to make the framing interesting (something not easy with a small digital camera when sunshine obscures the viewer image). And if I can exploit light and shade to increase drama, I'll do that too. But that's about it unless I happen to see something interesting in the way of subject juxtapositions.

Most of the images I post are not cropped or Photoshopped. Cropping happens when I have to square up a tilted image, but that cropping is usually minimal. At least once I had to brighten a dark image, and will do that again when I feel the photo is essential to my essay.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 13, 2008 1:12 PM

One of the nice things about a canal like the Rideau (and also, so it seems, about the canal that makes up River Walk in San Antonio), is that it is apparently feasible to put the pedestrian walkway in very close proximity to the water -- I suppose because there is no need to worry about flood protection or great changes in water level due to tides.

Slight correction - the San Antonio Riverwalk (we were there last month) is built mostly along a loop of the San Antonio River, not a canal. There's a smaller section that indeed is along a canal, but it's away from the main tourist area. Flooding isn't an issue because large gates can be lowered to close off the Riverwalk loop from the main course of the San Antonio River.

Posted by: Peter on October 13, 2008 2:36 PM

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