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« Ottawa Isn't Rome | Main | Localism, Bad, Good, and Foodie »

October 12, 2008

Safdie Designs a Gallery

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently wrote about Ottawa and Moshe Safdie. Now I'll combine the two by discussing his National Gallery of Canada building in Ottawa.

To set the scene, here are the photos I took of it.


This is the National Gallery as seen from near the Parliament building (to get some orientation, see the pictures in the first link, above). The following two pictures are interior views of the long, glazed wall and the glazed tower on the corner of the structure.

This is what that glazed wall looks like from the inside. As you see, it's actually a gallery of sorts, the left side being windows with a view of Parliament Hill. The floor is a long ramp leading up to the glass tower and the first art galleries floor.

This is the interior of the glass tower as seen from the upper art gallery floor. A coffee shop dining area is on the first level. And there is a fine view of Parliament Hill to savor.

The National Gallery opened 1988 to a positive review by Paul Goldberger of The New York Times.

My opinion is that the southern exterior, the one shown in the photo, holds the most interest; the rest of the building that I saw (I didn't walk around it, so might have missed a few things) is rather bland and nothing special. The best thing Safdie did was realize that, in many respects, the view from the building is almost as important as the view of the building. Hence the sloping-ramp gallery and glazed tower. These are two structural instances where Modernism can work well, though I can imagine some traditionally-based solutions that might work about as well.

I wasn't happy with the layout of the main gallery wing. That might have had to do with the fact that we had a time budget of around an hour and I especially wanted to see the museum's display of Tom Thompson and Group of Seven artists. The trouble is, that particular display was diagonally opposite the glazed tower area entry to the galleries so, map in hand, I had to work my way around lots of less important stuff to get where I wanted to go. The layout is basically a racetrack pattern with two large galleries in the middle and a limited number of cross-paths.

I would have preferred more entry points than the ones from the tower corner. The layout is simply too constrictive, too controlled. I recognize that there is probably no ideal museum layout, though my gut feeling is that a central entry with a set of branching-out points (perhaps along with peripheral race-tracks) might be better than alternatives. My take is that Safdie made visitor circulation subservient to his ramp-and-tower concept.

All of which is not to say that it's a botched job. The museum is okay. The nice views are counterbalanced by a flawed circulation design. The exterior could easily be improved, but is tolerable, given its physical distance from the architecture of Parliament Hill.

I assume the public is more accepting of it than I am.



posted by Donald at October 12, 2008


Safdie also did the modern southern pavillion of the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Montréal, which I have great affection for (mainly for it being free to visit the permanent exhibits). It's a pretty effective, though somewhat workmanlike building. Its only significant deficit, as I remember, is the most annoying stairs I have ever walked up/down. Take the elevator....

Posted by: ERM on October 13, 2008 1:46 PM

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