ON this Canada Day, Kelly Wojnarski shares her opinion of the Rideau Canal Esplanade and Ottawa Convention Centre Forecourt.
By Kelly Wojnarski…
While the title of this article conveys two separate projects, in reality the Rideau Canal Esplanade and Ottawa Convention Centre forecourt are one cohesive space. The new Ottawa Convention Centre Building, designed by Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects and built by PCL constructors in spring 2011, is situated adjacent to the iconic Rideau Canal in the heart of Ottawa. This landscape architectural design is a matrix that unites both of these key urban features to one another, as well as to the city at large.
The Ottawa Convention Centre – built to replace the existing outdated and undersized meeting facility – was intended to serve as an economic catalyst by drawing visitors from around the country and all over the world. The LEED® Gold Certified building is indeed visually stunning, a sweeping structure reminiscent of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing blended with one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. The building’s front entrance faces directly onto the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest green corridor in Ottawa. With such an integral recreational, ecological and historic spine located virtually on its front doorstep, it seemed only natural to connect the Convention Centre to the Canal through the design of its exterior spaces.
The award-winning landscape design itself was completed by two local firms: the Convention Centre forecourt by Lashley + Associates Landscape Architecture, and the Rideau Canal Esplanade by Corush Sunderland Wright. Although it is officially designated as two separate projects, the design itself has a remarkably cohesive feel. Walking along the canal from Somerset Street, as I did one muggy spring afternoon, the Esplanade announces itself with triangular beds that spring forth with the purple and white globes of ornamental onion flowers. These planters separate the multi-use pathway from the busy Colonel By Drive.
Further ahead, I spot several rough-hewn timbers bordering the canal in the distance. Approaching, I realize that these aren’t driftwood or remnants from a bygone logging endeavour but a series of oversized benches. I can imagine throngs of people lounging around on a sunny day, though the benches seem to attract their fair share of occupants in the overcast weather, especially below a nearby grove of mature elm.
Arriving at an open plaza, I turn towards the Convention Centre and quickly notice small copses of birch in angular planters that screen the façade and provide a welcome buffer against the busy street. Their skinny white trunks jut up from the dense understory of juniper, suggesting slivers of canadiana while lending these wedges a distinctly otherworldly feel.
Throughout the site, stainless steel benches and bollards, along with oversized pavers laid in a bold, yet random pattern also contribute to a contemporary vibe. The unit pavers span across Colonel By Drive to connect the Esplanade with the Convention Centre forecourt. Crossing the street is made considerably less intimidating due to this emphasis on the pedestrian experience.
After crossing Colonel By Drive into the Convention Centre forecourt, I’m faced with a quartet of brushed metal flagpoles and the facility’s sign. The materials and details pick up where those along the Esplanade leave off: the design incorporates an identical palette of birch trees, rough timber seating and cast-in-place concrete walls. The same paving runs up to the building itself, carrying a visitor from the street into the building beyond the curving glass façade. Although the forecourt is a relatively small space, it’s a rather effective threshold. It pulls in two directions – both into the facility and towards the canal – mediating the connection between architectural spectacle and urban trail.
Descending the steps from the adjacent MacKenzie King Bridge affords a great overview of both parts. In addition to running the dominant paving pattern across the street, the designers incorporated strips of granite inset into the asphalt of Colonel By Drive to reinforce this connectivity. A subliminal gesture – not so much noticed as sensed when walking across – is evident from above. It is from this perch that I realize the essence of this project: the design draws its success from not only being the tie binding two significant focal points in downtown Ottawa, but connective tissue that simultaneously encourages exploration of the city beyond.
Kelly Wojnarski is a landscape architectural intern in Ottawa.