Watson Balharrie Critiques (part of) the National Capital Plan

Ottawa architect Watson Balharrie had opinions about the National Capital Plan’s vision for architecture in Ottawa. Images: (left) Ottawa Citizen, February 19, 1946, 12; (right) Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952).

Although it was indisputably popular among many of Ottawa’s citizens, the National Capital Plan was not without its detractors. Both the concept and implementation of the Green Belt, for example, were a problem for many and the plan was sometimes used by locals to oppose necessary infrastructure projects. Criticisms of the Plan were not limited to their urban planning aspects. As it would turn out, even the fairly basic prescriptions for architecture raised a few hackles.

Celebrated Ottawa architect Watson Balharrie, for one, feared that the Plan would result in oppressive and monumental architecture that denied the humanity of Ottawa’s residents and that the vision offered was little more than an impression of capitals elsewhere. Below, I have transcribed Balharrie’s article from the Community Planning Review‘s May 1952 article on the topic.1As this website uses a single column layout and the Community Planning Review used a two-column layout, it has been adapted to match the style here. Balharrie’s argument, it should be mentioned, quickly spilled out of the pages of Community Planning Review and into the pages of the Ottawa Citizen.2See “National Capital Building Concepts,” Ottawa Citizen, June 12, 1952, 38; Hugh Palmer, “Buildings Without Poetry,” Ottawa Citizen, June 17, 1952, 28.


Un architecte bien connu d’Ottawa discute les implications esthétiques du projet d’aménagement de la capitale nationale. Il indique les contradictions qu’on peut prévoir en l’effort de placer des maisons d’offices fonctionelles le long des grands boulevards proposés. Les esquisses sont de l’auteur.

THE INTENDED APPEARANCE OF THE NATIONAL CAPITAL

by Watson Balharrie*3*Watson Balharrie, MRAIC, is a partner in a prominent firm of architects whose practice extends over much of the lower Ottawa valley. He has lived in the capital all his life, and taken an active part in professional and public affairs there. An ardent photographer, he also lectures regularly at McGill University School of Architecture. The sketches herewith are from his own pen.

For some time now the plan for development of Ottawa has been completed. The groundwork of the master plan has been laid. In the words of the late Rt. Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King, “The master plan arouses the urgent need for wise community planning and efficient traffic and transportation facilities. It corrects deficiencies resulting from unplanned undertakings in the past; it enhances the possibilities of preserving that which is, as yet, unspoiled.”

The task of determining as far as possible the present and future needs of the national capital in terms of land use and circulation lines has been completed; of course not every detail is decided, but there is in being a pattern which if carried out will fulfil, in part at least, the Utopian concept outlined by Mr. Mackenzie King.

The General Report of the Consultant to the National Capital Planning Committee indicates a planned development of some 900 square miles. Of this greater district, a small portion comprising the cities of Ottawa and Hull forms the urban focus. In this urban area the plan is quite specific in its detail and recommendations. It has made an effort to recognize and correct any natural or created deficiencies – such as the unfortunate location of heavy industry relative to the stateliness of Parliament Hill, and the complication of rail and vehicular traffic in the congested uptown areas. Roads have been conceived on a scale which not only assures improved circulation but in many cases gives and impression of grandeur. Many of these grand areas are to house the buildings of of the state.

The Report lists a large group of public building which are proposed as part of the architectural development. These include buildings for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Bureau of Statistics, Public Works Laboratories, a Printing Bureau, a National Defence Building, National Theatre, National Gallery, National Library and many others. Clearly the Federal Government will be the largest single purchaser of architecture for some time to come, and already some of the principal buildings are in process of construction and others are in the design stage.

To assure that these buildings achieve a degree of ornamental monumentality, a Committee on Aesthetics to control the appearance of public land and buildings has been set up. The Committee, the Report states, should recognize the function of a building “is always the commanding factor in its design”; but the building should not be “permitted to express merely utilitarian requirements, regardless of environment”. This directness is qualified, and the Report goes on to say that, while no style is recommended or compulsory, the “rule does not preclude the use of certain elements which have been more particularly favoured by a given style. The incorporation of those elements does not mean copying them, but rather their adaptation to other means and ways of expression”. Apparently there is a distinction between incorporating and copying. The definition of these terms from the Report might, however, tax the integrity of the designing architect.

The aesthetic merit of a building is evidently to be judged primarily by the relationship of masses to silhouettes, and by the uniformity of roof angles; this would seem to imply a conception of major buildings primarily as façades clothing the corridor streets. Degree of control is to be determined by the importance of the individual design within the over-all picture. Existing buildings are apparently to act as pivot points; and their horizontal lines are to be determining factors in the design of new buildings along not only Wellington Street, but Elgin Street, as well. The unity of the street is to be preserved at all costs.

In an effort to produce and architectural elegance with which to invest the grand boulevards, the element of humanity seems to have been dropped by the wayside. Rather than achieve a sense of modesty in scale compatible with the living habits of Canadian urban people, there seems to be a desire for the grandeur usually associated with the pomp and circumstance of an earlier time.

“The monumental ensemble of Wellington Street” / “L’ensemble monumental de la Rue Wellington” Image: National Capital Planning Service / Comité d’Aménagement de la Capitale Nationale. Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 44.

REPORT CONFOUNDS IMPRESSIVE WITH IMITATIVE

Let us admit that the problem of planning the streets and buildings of greater Ottawa is not one which can be taken lightly. To merit the title of Capital, Ottawa is expected to have a certain architectural quality perhaps not found in cities of lesser stature. While the living needs are parallel to those of other urban areas in Canada, there is an extra consideration to be met. This extra quality does not apply to the character of the residential neighbourhoods, but is to be present in the visual expression of the buildings of state. But this quality is not something which can be applied as frosting, nor is it something which can be borrowed from another era. It is rather a straightforward recognition of all the factors which unite to make a building and its environment a fit place for human occupancy. The number and relationship of the buildings alone will identify the metropolitan centre as that of a city having national importance. It is not, then, necessary ‘to incorporate the elements which characterize a given style’ in order to give the Capital its identity. Yet the work forecast has a nostalgic form.

There is a reasons for an aesthetic control committee, but there is also a need for a recognition of more common and workaday urban requirements. A little closer examination of the plan indicates an abundance of grand vistas along carefully planted boulevards. Axial roadways with circular junctions are numerous, radiating outward from arbitrary focal groups of government buildings. Supposedly, the broad formal boulevards planned in such number for Ottawa will lend and air of graciousness to the metropolitan centre. They offer a species of traditional background for the functions of state which involve ceremonial parades. Fortress-like on each side of the grande allée will stand the be-corniced ‘silhouettes’, like canyon walls – and just as permanent. Visual penetration of these walls is to be impossible at the pedestrian level, except for the odd peek through an arcaded path or roadway joining the otherwise unbroken solids.

Wellington Street is to have a very defined character, comparable in its function with Constitution Avenue in Washington. The prescribed character stems not from an analysis of evident building trends in Ottawa, but from desire for a particular visual effect alone. Already the shape of things to come is being formed along these lines. ‘Picturesque silhouettes and conformity of cornice lines’ are indeed the governing design factors. Is this the ‘commanding functional need’ upon which the buildings were to have been conceived?*4*The perspective drawings for three structures now being completed in the Capital were reproduced in Canadian Art Vol. VIII No. 2, and in this Association’s Newsletter for June 1951. – Editor

If tradition has its way, then the grand avenues will be flanked with huge masses, each tied to the other by roof-lines and bands of stone, the whole contained within accentuating blobs of masonry at each end – all proper and correct and in strict Renaissance good taste. The ‘silhouette’ requirement will be satisfied. Constitution Avenue will be re-created.

Unfortunate accusations, such as empty grandeur and over-forced impressiveness, conveyed by the word monumental will be justified. Buildings will impart by their vast dimensions a feeling of insignificance to passing people. Ground-hugging solidity, with all the awful permanence implied, will be realized.

GOOD WORK ZONES NO LONGER WEAR SOLID FRONTS

To the architect who now considers buildings primarily where people live, work and play, this official approach is most confusing. Ordinary human needs just do not seem to fit between the silhouettes and cornice lines. It is most difficult to reconcile the office functions of the Civil Service (who are human, after all) to this official view of their future accommodation – massive, opaque blocks of stone – when a type of building that is lighter and more comfortably satisfying is now possible.

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 45.

A satisfactory expression of a set of office buildings would be a grouping of slender structures standing free in space with passages and areas defined between them at ground level. The portion of each building housing ordinary office areas would then declare by its appearance that there is adequate daylighting and a pleasant

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 45.

view in each office space. The narrow, long slab on edge, with corridor down the centre and office depths worked out to give daylight to the workers within, assures maximum of working comfort to all areas. This is the accepted form of the contemporary office block because of the architect’s regard for that comfort, and for future flexibility in the subdivision of working spaces within an economically built frame of columns and floor-planes. The United Nations Secretariat building is a well-known example. Certainly the solution is better than the square building plan with deep offices – many without any daylight, or facing into dull courts, difficult to maintain. The thin slab rather than the massive block is the basic component of the office district of our age. But the arrangement of slabs on the ground calls for sites of different size and shape than those along the old corridor street.

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 46.

Where T or L shaped plans are required, it is possible visually to separate two wings, this showing clearly that the building is not a great cube. Minor projections and blank walls can be used to separate the real slab elements in such combinations (below).

Floor to ceiling glass in ground-floor public areas would provide visual access through the buildings to the spaces beyond, tending to free the structures from the ground. Pleasant vistas may be created using portions of the foreground buildings as framing devices. A new delight in the environment is opened up in this way (below, opposite page).

There are many arguments both for and against the building which appears to stand on stilts – so that the lower floor, being transparent, exposes only the vertical structural members. While this type of treatment does

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 46.

not solve all problems, its principal advantage is the freeing of ground space; pedestrian or even vehicular circulation can be arranged with minimum interference from the buildings. Unloosing the structure off the soil in this way perhaps the extreme opposite to the traditional solid foundation; but it does have another very realistic use, particularly where the site is limited and a sense of lively openness at ground level is desired.

Regard only for the façades of the avenue is indicated by this plan. Only the street exposures of buildings seem to have been given primary consideration in many cases. Presumably the back yards will take care of themselves; and development of the environment, other than that which is viewed by the tourists, will be haphazard. Free planning on the other hand – with full use of the sites and care for all aspects of the buildings – requires con-

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 47.

sideration far beyond the front elevation to assure a beauty that will be more than skin deep. (See front cover and page 48.5Having collected this article several years ago, it is only recently that I noticed that I did not collect Balharrie’s sketch from Page 48.)

If the designing architect is to be restricted to a degree which is not compatible with good sense in building design and grouping, then the aesthetic control committee will not fulfill a useful purpose. It may help to satisfy the preconceptions of a minority whose wish it is to see the Capital emerge as an archaic gem; but it will not satisfy the urban requirements of an enlightened humanity.

The realization of the Capital plan is to constitute a monument commemorating the sacrifices of the Second War; but true monumentality cannot now be conceived so consciously. Perhaps the monument of our era which will be honoured most by posterity will be the power dam, or the planned housing development – some project not intentionally designed as a memorial, but rather as an instrument for the use and welfare of people.6Watson Balharrie. “The Intended Appearance of the National Capital,” Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 43-8.

Source: Watson Balharrie, Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 47.

Notes   [ + ]

1. As this website uses a single column layout and the Community Planning Review used a two-column layout, it has been adapted to match the style here.
2. See “National Capital Building Concepts,” Ottawa Citizen, June 12, 1952, 38; Hugh Palmer, “Buildings Without Poetry,” Ottawa Citizen, June 17, 1952, 28.
3. *Watson Balharrie, MRAIC, is a partner in a prominent firm of architects whose practice extends over much of the lower Ottawa valley. He has lived in the capital all his life, and taken an active part in professional and public affairs there. An ardent photographer, he also lectures regularly at McGill University School of Architecture. The sketches herewith are from his own pen.
4. *The perspective drawings for three structures now being completed in the Capital were reproduced in Canadian Art Vol. VIII No. 2, and in this Association’s Newsletter for June 1951. – Editor
5. Having collected this article several years ago, it is only recently that I noticed that I did not collect Balharrie’s sketch from Page 48.
6. Watson Balharrie. “The Intended Appearance of the National Capital,” Community Planning Review, 2, no. 2 (May 1952): 43-8.

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