On a recent trip to Ottawa, I had a chance to visit the Canadian Museum of Nature. This natural history museum just completed an epic $230-million renovation led by KPMB – and along with much unsexy restoration and repair to the structure’s guts, and a new facilities and event space, it fused a glassy new form onto the vaguely Gothic museum. The two parts make a handsome couple.
The Victoria Memorial Museum Building went up between 1905 and 1911 – the first purpose-built museum in Canada. But It wasn’t built well, and in 1914 most of the front tower was demolished, leaving a two-story stub. The structure has kept sinking since then, and it needed a total overhaul. The work began in 2004, and it brought in a completely new steel structure; all new mechanical systems; seismic protection; asbestos removal, waterproofing…
This is just the sort of laundry list that tends to wear out designers and clients, and drag any aesthetic quality out of a building project. Not so here. As you can see, the designers (a joint venture led by KPMB) added a dramatic new element to the building: a glass-enclosed grand stair that rises above the entrance. They’ve tagged it “the lantern,” and from the outside it makes a grand statement, especially given the context in a homely residential neighbourhood. (From inside you can see straight to Parliament Hill, though. Ottawa is a small city.)
Inside, the lantern structure adds a bit of extra floor space and a route between the four levels of the museum. The stair is beautifully detailed in Carrera marble and steel, and harmonizes well with the very handsome glass facades. (Four large columns carry all the weight.)
It interacts with the building’s original atrium by David Ewart, which is quite minimal, with a bit of Beaux-Arts botanical and animal details.
A few newly designed spaces, including a meeting hall and gorgeous new cafe, employ pale-stained white oak furniture and millwork; the cafe has some graphic wall prints. But generally the materials and the moves complement the original building. There is nothing superfluous here and all of the visible design work is contemporary in its forms and materials without being visually overbearing. It makes the old building look better. That’s more than I can say for the Royal Ontario Museum, a museum of the same vintage, and Daniel Libeskind’s showy yet unattractive and awkward Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.
If anything, the new CMN design is too modest; I’m not sure that the original building, aside from the stonework on the exterior, warrants such deference. But this is Ottawa, and the client is ultimately the government of Canada – not the boldest of design patrons. And to be fair, this building has an important place in Ottawa’s short history. It housed Canada’s legislature for four years after the Parliament Buildings burned down in 1916; it also hosted the National Gallery of Canada between 1911 and 1960.
All photos are by Tom Arban.