Designing Hot Ideas for a Cold Climate

A class trip to Ottawa for a tour and presentation to city officials relates drawing board ideas to concrete settings.

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 8, 2014) – As Canadian snow birds began flocking to Florida in October, a small group of USF masters students was making the reverse trip, leaving the balmy Tampa climate for frigid temperatures in Ottawa.

They had arrived – virtually speaking – well before they left. Working with 3D imagery and maps, the nine students in Assistant Professor Shannon Bassett’s advanced architecture and urban design studio continued to build upon their own scale model of Downtown Ottawa inherited from Bassett’s urban and community design studio in fall 2013 who first created it. In the process they became familiar with the city’s buildings, streets and dramatic natural landscapes in preparation for creating ways to transform a particular part of it, La Chaudière Falls Islands and surroundings.

“We didn’t have advanced Google Earth’s satellite maps when I was an architecture student,” the Ottawa-born professor said. “But major cities like Ottawa now produce 3D maps that people like us can use. So the students were able to get a pretty good sense of what to expect. That in no way is the same as visiting and experiencing the site in its context, as well as meeting with its constituents and stakeholders to hear their points of view and narratives with respect to what they feel are the important issues of development of the site.”

What the model they made shows is a section of the Canadian capital’s waterfront, Parliament buildings, museums and the area that concerns the students most – the Chaudière islands that sit in the middle of the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec.

“The interprovincial borderline, in fact, runs down the middle of the site, which is especially charged, as it is the boundary of the distinct cultures pf the English and French settlers of Canada,” Bassett explained.

Historically significant territory

“These Islands have an important historical connection to 19th-century trade routes along the Ottawa River and just as important is the First Nations people's claim to the site. It was a sacred place for them.”

This is a subject Bassett has written about in Canadian Architect in the Systems of Sustainability Cultural Landscapes Issue (January 2007) which has been cited by the Canada National Research Council. “There are historical images that show First Nations people, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, worshipping the natural power of the falls and conducting sacrifices.”

After the First Nations peoples used the area as a traditional meeting place then came the lumber industry, followed by the paper and pulp industry. Ottawa grew up with and around these trades where it borders Gatineau, Quebec and the town of Hull which makes up the National Capital Region.

Right at its heart lies what Bassett describes as “a derelict, low-density area of land that has the potential to be one of the most compelling and culturally charged sites in the city, if not entire country. At the same time it is incredibly rich for its relics, artifacts and landscapes as a found condition,” which Bassett loves, contributing to the inspiration for the title for the advanced urban design studio, “Reclaim Reuse Recycle Remediate La Chaudiere Falls and Victoria Islands: Transforming a Formal Industrial Site Into an Important Cultural Landscape.”

She said, “It is the perfect setting to create a post-industrial economic engine. All the elements are there to attract tourism and new residential and business interest.”

Following in noteworthy footsteps

Successful examples abound. Bassett points to the Duisburg Nord Landscape Park in Germany that transformed the Thyssen Steel Plant, New York City’s High Line that transformed a section of the West Side Highway as well as Toronto’s Distillery District and Vancouver’s Granville Island. Other models are Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks for its adaptive reuse of a brownfield and Victoria, British Columbia’s Dockside Green. All involved taking abandoned industrial areas and transforming them into people-friendly points of city pride.

“They all used the strategy of adaptive reuse while alluding to their respective industrial heritages, letting existing structures serve as vehicles for architectural concepts – using the best of what was left behind and making it better in a kind of hybrid what was left behind and making it better. Drawing on public private partnerships can provide the financial support needed to address seemingly unsurmountable obstacles such as brownfields or modernizing infrastructure,” she pointed out.

The 37-acre site in question was recently purchased by Windmill Development and the company will present its plans to the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau in a matter of months. The previous owner, Domtar Paper Company, lent its name to area that is referred to as the Domtar Lands. The new owner, Windmill Developers, says it wants to create “Canada’s most sustainable mixed-use community.”

The proposed redevelopment of the Islands would also encompass several national institutions, including an aboriginal museum with interpretive heritage paths. Canada’s National Capital Commission, akin to the U.S. National Capitol Planning Commission for Washington, D.C. that has oversight of the capitol region, will have to approve the plan.

Seeing for themselves

Nine students, in three three-person teams, imagined what could be done based on unfettered ideas. Going to Ottawa in person was the next step in order to stroll through the streets they had walked only in their imaginations. In fact, all but one had never been to Canada, let alone Ottawa. For at least three, Jessica Hare, Josh Riek and Tyler Razey, this was the opportunity to see snow for the first time. Since wintry weather reaches Canada a while before it makes its way into the United States and especially Florida, they were in luck. There was plenty of snow on the ground – a lot of it.

Despite the cold, the students toured Ottawa and did a lot of walking. They also had the opportunity to present their visions to an audience of developers and public officials, including the National Capital Commission.

There was time for recreation, too. The students skated across the city on the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 7.8 kilometers long with a chance to stop for the not-to-be-missed Canadian pastries, Beaver Tails.

Proposing bold changes

One particular place Bassett and her class would like to see change for the better is the point where the Chaudière Falls make their dramatic descent into the river. Barbed wire and fencing currently obscure its beauty.

“It has been disconnected from the public realm for over one hundred years,” said Bassett.

The design teams envisioned parks and boardwalks around the Falls with housing, restaurants and stores growing up nearby.

“They are designing an aboriginal museum as well as an industrial history museum. In the studio, they are investigating how open space systems for the public can also dual as landscape recovery,” Bassett said. “Right now it is truly a post-industrial wasteland. What’s needed are vibrant communities and gathering places open to the public.”

Removing a power dam that provides power was suggested by one team.

“There is currently a grass roots movement in Ottawa who would like to see the power dam removed, including leaders representing the First Nations People, who because of its natural beauty and significance would like to resotre the site back to its natural condition,” Bassett said. “There are examples of more sustainable dams than the one on the site which is about 100 years old and obsolete infrastructure. We are - technologically capable of deriving even more power while being ecologically responsible.”

A cantilevered walkway over the falls is equally possible despite some skepticism.

Bassett asks, “Why not do things that can turn into signature iconography and at the same time be beautiful and respectful of nature? The site represents an important missing link in the sophisticated and interconnected green systems of the National Capital region, as well as the adjacent Gatineau National Park just to the north-east of the site. ”

Preservation versus wholesale destruction

Bassett spent a summer internship at the National Capital Commission in 1992 and 1997 while she was an architecture student at the Carleton University School of Architecture in Ottawa. Learning the history of the summary bulldozing of the LeBreton Flats neighborhood in this area – locate to the immediate south of the site during the 1960s set her on a mission to focus her architectural skills on urban design.

“This was during the urban renewal period experienced by many North American cities,” she said.

Today preservation, protecting heritage and conservation are her guiding principles. The notion of rolling into any setting and destroying it to build something new is completely opposed to her beliefs.

Bassett’s preference? “Look around – take the setting, the history and the culture, as well as the natural landscapes, into consideration, unearth and scrape away the site’s layered histories and palimpsest,” she said.

Her choice is to research and ask questions about what people want and need – that is, all the people who will and could potentially use it. She brings those values to every project she takes on and encourages her students to do the same. By also reminding them to use their own backgrounds and experiences, in the process she learns almost as much from them as they learn from her.

“This is the second time I have run this studio. This past fall 2013 it was the focus of my urban design studio for the post-professional Masters of Urban and Community Design program,” said Bassett. “It was an extremely interesting and diverse class with backgrounds from Columbia to China. It was interesting in that the project was so rich that all of the students had perspectives which they brought forth from their home country and cultural to the design project. For example one student, Mary Alvarez had previously researched indigenous architecture in Columbia for her architecture thesis and another, Yuan Gao from Beijing is faced with issues of heritage conservation and adaptive reuse in that changing city facing the pressures of urbanization and modernization.”

From Ottawa, Bassett’s students went on to visit the Evergreen Brickworks and Distillery District in Toronto which they also found inspiring, in addition to many examples of adaptive resure architectural and urban projects in Montreal.

“The deindustrialization we’re seeing across North America as well as in Europe presents new opportunities for new adaptive reuse and development of the industrial structures and these rich post-industrial sites, at the same time as being an opportunity for landscape recovery and remediation of these oftentimes brownfield sites. If it’s done in a thoughtful way, everyone can benefit – the developers, the citizenry and the overall economy, as well as the natural landscape and native habitat – for all.

“I hope what my students have designed and are designing, if nothing else, will open their minds to the greatness they can achieve with fundamental holistic and sustainable design principles. If they get to use some of their ideas, all the better!”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563