Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard


“Down by the bay (street)” and “Cheese of the World.” Photos by Christopher Ryan.

What is architecture and who is an architect? We all sort of know but sort of don’t. I have been studying, designing, and writing about architecture for fifteen years and I don’t really know. I can say the answer is not as simple as “an architect makes architecture, and architecture is something made by architects.”

Last month I attended Critic’s Night at the Phi Centre in Montreal co-hosted by the Maison de l’architecture du Québec (MAQ) and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). The evening included a wonderful bilingual discussion between two greatly respected architecture critics; former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Emmanuel Caille, senior editor of D’architectures.

M. Caille is an architect. Mr. Goldberger is not. Both are obviously exceptionally knowledgeable about architecture. Both are highly influential voices in architecture. They raised some very important issues and questions about the role of criticism and what it contributes to architecture.

A damaging review by a theatre critic or food critic might shut-down the show or restaurant. It is hard to imagine that a bad review by an architecture critic has ever shut-down a building or stopped people who planned to use it from using it. So what is the point of architecture critics if the object of their criticism is already built and not going anywhere?

There are many reasons why architectural criticism and journalism are important:

  • It advocates for and sets a bar for good and better architecture.
  • It gives the general public increased access to understanding what can seem to be an overwhelmingly insiders’ discipline.
  • It gives architects recognition for their hard work.
  • It also keeps architects accountable to the general public.

Architecture has the potential for huge public impact. Codes and regulations keep architecture physically safe and keeps architects accountable to public safety. Critics and academics help to give us the tools to understand and evaluate—among other things—the social and cultural impact of architecture. Afterall, it is not enough for architects to produce something to make their clients happy and just conforms to codes.

Hopefully, architecture criticism and journalism make us all better critics and appreciators of architecture. It gives more people access to understanding what architects do, what architecture can be, and what standards we should expect. It raises the discussion beyond personal taste. It can help us place architecture in the context of the important issues that shape our cities; economic, social, environmental, political, historical, and aesthetic issues.

The world celebrated Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday this month. As one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, Jacobs had a greater impact on the shape of our cities than any architect. She reminded us that cities are not just skyscrapers and freeways. Not just built by planners and architects.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

I love reading and talking with fellow architecture critics, writers, and journalists. Again, some have architectural training, some do not. We come to architecture from different paths but share a passion for our shared subject. Here in Ottawa, Jonathan McLeod, often discuss architecture and urban design, both in his Ottawa Citizen articles and on his blog “Steps from the Canal.”

Read More

I know many of my B.Arch./M.Arch. cohort and other architecture friends and colleagues have not pursued licensing but still actively participate in architecture and the built environment in one form or another.

I am therefore deeply concerned by the recent announcement from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that they will be retiring the old MRAIC designation in favour of RAIC to be used only by licensed architects. Until now, the MRAIC designation could be used by non-licensed members including graduates and faculty of schools of architecture.

The headline “New designation set to raise profile of architects” makes me question whether that is to the benefit of architecture in Canada or to licensed architects.

In Canada, licensing and associated designations are legislated under the Architect Act and regulated by the provincial professional architect associations. I understand (though don’t fully agree) with the need to protect the title “architect” to protect the public and make sure it is clear who is licensed to design buildings over a certain scale or of certain types.

I do not call myself an architect. I do not use the professional designation OAA. In fact, I recently gave a career talk at Algonquin College and specifically titled my presentation “I am NOT an architect”. I have a long list of titles to work around using the registered legislated title:

  • Architectural advocate/theorist/designer/activist/writer/educator
  • Critical architectural/urban art practitioner
  • Trained as an architect
  • Studied architecture

I never present myself as someone who knows how to make door schedules or check a design against building codes and zoning regulations. I absolutely do not intend to imply that is all an architect does. I actually mean to imply that there is a huge overlap between what a licensed architect does and what I do, between what they know and what I know. I still wouldn’t stamp my name to a construction drawing or give advice on technical details I’m not trained or experienced in. They (most of them) won’t go around publishing in academic journals.

Do people misunderstand the distinction between “studied architecture” and “architect”? ALL THE TIME. I don’t call myself an architect but lots of people call me one. The use of M.Arch. after my name creates this confusion as much as MRAIC. I used to always correct them. Now I consider whether or not someone introducing me at a party as an “architect” is putting the public at risk or if it’s just easier than using one of the more accurate but cumbersome titles from my list.

There is an important distinction between misrepresentation and misunderstanding. While it is reasonable to regulate and impose restrictions to control against professional misrepresentation, the change by the RAIC claims to be about clarifying general public misunderstanding about who is and who isn’t an architect by restricting use of their non-legislated designation.

To what extent should I veil my architectural association/knowledge/expertise/disposition to ensure I am not accidentally misconceived to be an architect? And to what extent should I not be able to present my valid qualifications and associations because some unethical person might misuse them to misrepresent themselves?

Read More

Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon


Now that we are a couple months removed from the public presentations and consultation process for the redevelopment of Lebreton Flats I am anxious to see what recommendations will be made to the National Capital Commission (NCC) Board of Directors by the evaluation committee.

Their recommendation along with a summary of the public input that was compiled for the committee will be made public sometime this spring.

As we await their recommendation, I can’t help but wonder what influence our input will have on the committee’s decision, if any at all. I am optimistic that the more than 7,900 people who submitted comments will feel as if they were a valued part of the process through some correlation between the summary and the selected design. However, the public engagement process has left me with some reservations.

The magnitude of the Lebreton redevelopment demanded more than a few public presentations and two weeks to provide comments through an online questionnaire. While we likely won’t see another project of its size or prominence in the near future it does call into question whether the current public engagement strategies are adequate. I would argue that they aren’t.

To date Ottawa has championed the online questionnaire for gathering feedback from citizens. As mentioned, for the Lebreton redevelopment this tool was employed in conjunction with the question period of the public presentations.

Similarly, although it may be a distant memory to some now, the City undertook the Liveable Ottawa 2031 project two years ago which also consisted of an online questionnaire.  The perspective gained from this exercise was supposed to play a role in influencing public policy in Ottawa which would be reflected in the amendments to the Official Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Infrastructure Master Plan, Cycling Plan, and Pedestrian Plan.

Yet some of the Liveable Ottawa questions were too ambiguous and were left open to interpretation as previously noted by yowLAB and the Ottawa Citizen. Additionally, it is still unclear to me how the information gathered was put to use.

I think we all appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback but without an understanding of how it will be put to use, the incentive to continue participating diminishes.

Read More

While the National Capital Commission was pleased to announce the success of their public consultation with nearly 8,000 responses to the questionnaire on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, we are left asking to what end? How will the content of those questionnaires be compiled? Who will see the results? How will public feedback be used, if at all, and at what stage of the decision making process?

Following the close of the online feedback, the NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson exclaimed:

The high level of civic engagement and serious debate on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats will help guide this historic project to a successful conclusion.

Yet many, myself included, were disappointed because the public consultation lacked precisely that; opportunity for meaningful engagement and serious debate.

Despite a few leaks, no details were shared about either proposal until the public presentations on January 26 and 27 at the Canadian War Museum. Neither the formal presentations, that were more marketing than informative, or the Q&A session were sufficient for facilitating serious debate.

With only two weeks to participate in the only official form of public feedback, the extremely limited format of the online questionnaire contributed little more than a flood of knee-jerk reactions and poll of individual opinions. Engagement and debate require an opportunity to interact.

The number of questionnaire responses shows sincere public interest. The NCC should be excited. Sadly we have not been given a platform to actively engage in prioritizing goals or guiding principles to construct the groundwork for a responsible and meaningful development.

On the “ladder of citizen participation”—a tool devised in the 1960s by Sherry Arnstein for classifying participation—the LeBreton Flats process sadly falls at best in the “tokenism” category of placation, consultation, and informing. There is no partnership or citizen power.

Especially in the light of the history of the Flats as emblematic of the kind of authoritative control of the highly criticized and problematic mid-century approach to urban planning, we have to wonder whether our present day process is realistically any more sensitive or sensible.

Read More

Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon

The days and weeks following the public presentations of the two proposals for LeBreton Flats have seen both schemes dissected, analyzed and compared and contrasted. The two proposals have certainly given us quite a lot to write and talk about.

Like many, I am still on the fence as to which one I would rather see built as there are compelling and discouraging aspects to both proposals. Truthfully I sympathize with the designers, the task of getting it right is such a tall order for a site of this magnitude and prominence.

On the other hand it is a dream project for urban planners and architects alike. The opportunity to participate in the design of a project that will have such a grand influence on a city is extremely rare, not just in Ottawa but across the world. The greatest projects can also be the most challenging.

The design teams were tasked with designing a community, not just one or a few buildings. To put this in perspective, it can take only a few buildings to redefine or rejuvenate a community or neighborhood, but in that scenario the designer has the existing context to respond to. In the case of the LeBreton Flats the design teams had to design the context as well.

Starting from scratch means there is unlimited potential, and as proven by the last time the National Capital Commission sought out proposals for the LeBreton area, there is the potential of it falling flat. The significance of this project to the entirety of the city was evident by the turn out to the public presentations.

Read More

Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
15 January 2016

As buzz grows about our sesquicentennial in 2017, the National Capital Commission wants us to place our sites on the bicentennial. In December the NCC released a call to the public to submit seventeen ideas for the “major milestone projects” for 2067.

Ottawa Brutalism

It is a difficult task in the shadow of the monumental legend of 1967. The family trip to Expo 67 is one of my mother’s favourite childhood stories. Even as new immigrants to Canada, the Centennial infiltrated family lore on my father’s side as well. It seems the whole generation remembers and is attached to Expo and the Centennial projects that stretched across the country.

I planned to offer a full list of seventeen but just seven turned into an ordeal. I have tried to offer a mix of guiding principles and specific ideas. Many build on and continue to develop the strong vision the NCC has struggled to implement since the last centennial. They are a combination of architecture, infrastructure, landscapes, cultural, practical and ideological projects.

I cannot say that in fifty-one years I will believe in the following ideas. I hope they contribute to the discussion about what direction to move forward on over the next fifty-one years.

Read More

Originally submitted to Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon
11 December 2015

Historically markets have played an important role in cities and were often the heartbeat of the community. For many people they were, and continue to be, part of everyday life. In the past markets formed the link between urban and rural life as farmers and craftsman would bring their produce, livestock or other goods to the market to sell. The items for sale were representative of the resources, needs, and wants of the community it served. In this sense markets can provide a wonderfully broad understanding on the city and culture they are located in.


Winter in the Byward Market. Credit: Pierre Lachaîne

Ottawa, of course, is noted for the ByWard Market which remains a lively marketplace that used to cater to the blue-collar neighborhood Lowertown. Of the 5 original markets in Ottawa, only two remain – the ByWard Market and the Parkdale Market which is located in Hintonburg. Both of these continue to be hubs of activity within their communities.

In addition to these two permanent fixtures Ottawa has a number of other weekend pop-up markets where you can find local produce, baked goods, and a range of other offerings that can change by the week.

This summer I was impressed by the crowds at the Lansdowne farmers market each time I went, and seeing so many parents there with children brought back fond memories of when my dad would take me with him to the farmers market when I was growing up. Looking back now, the market was a fantastic place to learn about the local community, craft, and commerce.

Back then, bumping into friends gave the adults an opportunity to catch up and allowed us kids to explore in the safety of a pack – fortunately for our parents it was not a very large market. It was commonplace to run into people we knew and it became part of the fun of going. During the summers when we would go regularly we also came to know the vendors quite well.

Having the opportunity to talk to, and get to know some of them was an excellent lesson in mastering a craft. Not only could the farmers detail all the different ways their produce grows, but local artisans selling wooden toys or Christmas ornaments would tell you everything you wanted to know about their creations. As a curious kid I loved hearing about how things were grow or made.

Read More

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
13 November 2015

Last month, the NCC Capital Urbanism Lab hosted a talk with Mike Lydon, co-author of “Tactical Urbanism: Short-term action for longterm change”. The talk was well attended and enthusiastically received. Success stories and inspiring photos of simple and minor interventions that dramatically change the use and character of spaces from cities around the world have create a public appetite to imagine what these kinds of projects could mean for their own city. Ottawa wants on this bandwagon.

As pointed out during the talk, Ottawa already has some great examples of grassroots take-overs and transformations of space. The most impressive is now so commonplace and integrated in the routine of the city that we almost don’t think of it. The Sunday bike days started as a ‘tactical’ road take-over way back in 1970 and successfully institutionalized by the NCC. More recently, there was the pop-up reading garden, the Muskoka chairs at Confederation Square, and several projects I’ve been involved with through yowLAB and Impromptu Playground.

The Park_ingOttawa project (2012) asked Centretowners to submit ideas for what else "this parking space could be". Project and photo by Sarah Gelbard

The Park_ingOttawa project (2012) asked Centretowners to submit ideas for what else “this parking space could be”.
Project and photo by Sarah Gelbard

Tactical urbanism is meant to work between the community and the official city administration, between unsanctioned and sanctioned. In theory, everyday people have the flexibility and speed of ignoring red tape to “just do it” and make small, fast changes to improve their neighbourhoods. On the other end of the spectrum, city governments and institutions have the funding and power to make lasting change and to provide amenities to those who might not have the resources and luxury of making changes themselves.

While a lot of the grassroots tactics are meant to challenge and critique public policy, they also acknowledge the important role public policy and programs have in shaping the city. Cities are big complicated problems. DIY can only go so far. So on top of the public buzz, it is great to see the NCC and the city are listening and looking to find ways to integrate this new (or at least newly popularized) addition to the urban planning toolbox.

The City of Ottawa’s Neighbourhood Connection Office recently put out a call for applications to its new streetside spot pilot program. The program draws inspiration both from the international open-source and citizen-led Park(ing) Day movement and models from other cities such as Montreal’s rue St-DenisToronto’s Church Street, or Vancouver’s pilot. The city is accepting applications for the 25 spots to be made available as part of the 2016 summer pilot to run from April 1 to October 31.

Read More

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon
16 October 2015

New Ottawa Convention Centre and landscaped connection to the Rideau Canal, Photo by Bruce Mcrae used under Creative Commons

Change is good.

Despite this most people, myself included, are hesitant about change because we are comfortable with what we have and where we are but like it or not change is all around us.  We learn and grow from change, and we change because we have grown and learned something. The daily changes in our lives, unless it is life altering may be so subtle they go unnoticed. This can carry on for years until, after reflection, you realize how significantly different things really are. I think this is true in life and it is true for cities as well.

With smart phones it is easy to get lost in our technology and forget about the environment around us. I doubt I’m the only one who has walked to my destination, only poking my head up periodically to look out for obstacles, while checking emails, texting, or glancing at the news. There is a reward in finding something new or different in the city; a sense of satisfaction knowing you’re in “the loop.” If I catch myself getting lost in technology while I’m out for a walk I will stop and challenge myself to take in my surroundings.

The magnitude of change that happens in a city each year isn’t always immediately obvious. Yet, when you stop to think about the changes that have occurred in the last 5 to 7 years, it is surprising what has been completed and the projects that have started and remain underway.

It seems like only yesterday that citizens were up in arms about the Lansdowne redevelopment but now it stands built and it has already integrated into the fabric of the city – albeit, not without some growing pains. It has become a node in the city drawing people to the venue and the surrounding area. It also added a considerable amount of new housing stock in areas (the Glebe and Ottawa South) that are defined by their established neighborhoods.

Read More

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
18 September 2015

There is the campaign for a new central public library, controversies over new public art, public transportation and major infrastructure, and the challenge of finding continued support for crucial public services.

Cities are communities. While we all have our private concerns, goals, and obligations, as a city we also have to think collectively about our shared public lives and spaces. “Public” is at the centre of many city debates and comes up a lot in this column.

On the one hand there is demand for the city to do more to improve our environment and daily lives. On the other there is the seemingly inevitable complaints of city projects always being a “waste of taxpayers’ money”.

Cities, Ottawa included, have a long history of being torn between civic welfare and city budgets—between investing in the public domain and making financially responsible decisions. Sometimes they work together, sometimes one has to be chosen at the expense of the other.

So, what is “public”? Why it’s important to our cities? And who decides what is in the public’s interest? Let’s look at some of the big categories of public projects.

Read More