Ottawa thinks big, for once

Ottawa, as every resident knows, is change-challenged. The city’s inhabitants are often reluctant to try something new, or, for that matter, to think big. But every now and then they do something to demonstrate that Ottawans can overcome their mental paralysis regarding the future.

Take, for example, our spanking new Convention Centre. Opened in 2011, the $179-million facility sprawls along the Rideau Canal as a model of imaginative ambition. Compared to the bunker-style National Arts Centre on the other side of the canal, the Centre, all flowing glass and sweeping curves, is a veritable exemplar of dynamic, forward thinking.

It’s also a money-maker. For years Ottawa had to forego its share of the $263-billion market for North American conventions because it lacked the facilities necessary to accommodate many of them. No more. According to a study by the market research firm Ipsos, commissioned by the Convention Centre, it contributed $101 million to the local economy in 2012 after staging some 57 big-ticket events, including the federal Liberal Party convention and the NHL All-Star Weekend. That’s a nice uptick on the $85 million in economic pump-priming during the Centre’s first nine months of operation.

All told, then, the Centre attracted more than 47,000 out-of-towners during its first full year of operation, visitors who not only sauntered around the Parliament buildings or national museums, but spent money on Ottawa’s hotels, rode in its taxis, dined in its restaurants, and, who knows, got their hair done in the local beauty salons. All those people provided employment for thousands of local residents.

Such numbers are the best rebuttal to those unimaginative souls who fretted as the Centre’s costs crept up or worried that the structure would disturb tourist views of the parliamentary precinct. Monetarily, the Centre has effectively paid for itself, at least in terms of its benefit to the city. Esthetically, it has provided the city with “a world-class building,” to borrow architecture critic Rhys Phillips’s description, that is iconic and attention grabbing in its own right.

Some of us remember the notion of building a convention centre to replace the Congress Centre being the subject of discussion as far back as 1988. There were times when it looked like the project’s biggest boosters — people like, for instance, former major Jim Durrell, Patrick Kelly, the Centre’s president, Graham Bird, the Centre’s project director, and, not to be forgotten, architect Ritchard Brisbin — would need another quarter century to overcome the inertia of Ottawa’s heritage of architectural humbleness. Yes, yes, there are exceptions such as the Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery, but on the whole this city has displayed numbing mediocrity when it comes to its iconic buildings. To borrow again from Rhys Phillips: “The city doesn’t do showcase design. We do nothing that pushes the envelope, we are never on the cutting edge of architecture.”

Of course, Ottawa, as the nation’s capital, has to maintain its historical legacy. But that doesn’t mean we must adhere to the notion that the status quo is sacrosanct, architecturally speaking. Many ideas, scaled to Ottawa’s economy, possess standout potential — from a concert hall and a new library to, please, doing something intelligent with the former American embassy. The revitalization of Lansdowne Park shows change can happen here.

The success of the Glass-Bowl-on-the-Rideau demonstrates what Ottawa can aspire to and accomplish (with and without government) when, rather than obsessing on the past, it also thinks for the future.

Ottawa Citizen

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Ritchard Brisbin's "OCC is a model of imaginative ambition"