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

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon
21 August 2015

Good design starts before a single line is drawn. It begins with the relationship between the client (and various stakeholders) and the design team. Communication, understanding, respect, and a shared goal, form the foundation of any quality built project.

Architects have historically held a coveted position in society as their work shapes the world we live in. The practice of architecture has produced enduring monuments of civilization and progress but it is also responsible for the rest of the built environment: for example, your home, your place of employment, the grocery store, the bank, and school in your neighbourhood.

Despite the still prominent role of architects in society there seems to be a disconnect between today’s professionals and the general public. If it comes up in conversation that I work for an architecture firm there is usually a keen interest and curiosity about what I’m working on and what I do. It seems few people actually understand what architects do, the scope of our work, and the ways in which we can add value. That is one of the failings of our profession at the moment.

There is a common misconception that architects come up with outlandish designs that function poorly and cost an arm and a leg. When I hear variations of this I wonder if the work of a few is shaping the opinions of many.

You will not find napkin sketches as the focal point in many architect’s offices. In fact, most architects I have come to know are humble, hard working folk. Keep in mind that we need clients in order to work. Architecture is a collaborative, cooperative, and contingent process, not the work of a ‘master architect’ with a singular vision. Good design comes from a meeting of minds where all parties must participate in the pursuit of a common goal. Client, architect, consultants, and contractor must all want to create something great, and they should share the same criteria for what constitutes good design.

In an effort to get some perspective on the criteria that people use to measure good design, I posed the question to some of my colleagues as well as some friends who have no affiliation and limited interest in design.

Read More

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
24 July 2015

“Excuse me, miss. Can I take a picture with your camera? You can hold onto my skateboard to make sure I don’t run away with it.” Sounded like fair collateral and a fun exchange to me.

I’m not a skater. Not yet, anyways. I am becoming more and more motivated to learn. It is interesting and important to understand how different people see and use the city. When you watch skateboarding, and really pay attention, it is pretty remarkable how skaters relate to space.

They see things through a specific lens; through the movement and physics of a skateboard, creating and navigating obstacles, appropriating and sharing space. So when this random skater asked me to trust him with my camera, rather than worried he might run off with my camera, I was pretty excited for the opportunity to see the city even more directly through the eyes of a skater.

He asked me a few questions about how to use the camera. I assured him I could set it all to automatic. All he had to do was frame a shot and push the button. “Maybe I’ll just tell you what picture to take.” You can almost imagine he was giving me instructions on where to skate as much as how to compose the photo:

“Maybe if you get low down to the ground,” he started. “See that edge? Follow that line. Now wait a second and follow this guy as he’s walking away. . . and. . . go!” Not only was I seeing his city, I got to hear him describe the play by play of how he saw it and the moment he wanted to capture. We sat and chatted for a few minutes and then we both continued on our way.

I am maybe over-romanticizing and over-thinking this brief encounter. But there is a certain sensibility towards the city that is really captivating, here. There is a consciousness of the design of the space. The lines. The edges. The flow. But there is also a consciousness of the other people around and how they move through the space. Noting perhaps how most other people are using the space more or less as intended. Walk on the path. Sit on the bench.

Meanwhile, there are people who ask: What else could this space be? How else could I use it? What is its hidden potential? We all do to one degree or another at some point as we engage with the city. It seems pretty clear that this sensibility has had a positive impact for both the skateboard and overall Centretown community. Read More

Ottawa Public Library, Main Branch. 1973. George Bemi, architect.

I finally managed get into the library with my proper camera (sneaky cellphone shots don’t do it justice) and capture some of the beauty I see in the building. The main branch has been subject to some rather unsympathetic renovations over the years and it is sad that most people don’t experience it the way it was designed to be experienced. But if I can get in there and find it through a camera lens, I think it is possible to rediscover it through a thoughtful renovation.


yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard has partnered with Ottawa (de)Tours to create a “walking seminar” on brutalist architecture downtown.

It has been said that brutalist architecture is “unloved but not unlovely”. Beyond the monolithic, opaque, concrete façades are buildings filled with drama, mystery, and strong civic focus. In the post­war building boom and leading up to the Centennial, grand and heroic ideals of civic welfare and cultural identity were translated into a new vision for Ottawa. The abstract, technically efficient, and impersonal nature of modernism was too closely tied to war. The strong character of brutalist architecture embodied renewed hope, stability, and humanity. Ironically, today we tend to misread these buildings as imposing and inhuman “eyesores”. . .

– continue reading –

As a little teaser, listen to Sarah’s interview on CBC In Town and Out from earlier this year and check out Centretown Buzz article. Tina Barton joined Sarah earlier this month for a preview of the tour. You can read her thoughts on “Is there any beauty in brutalism?”

The first block of tour dates is now available for booking.

Additional dates will be added throughout the summer and fall.

Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
19 June 2015

Last summer, following the 40th anniversary of the Ottawa Public Library Main Branch on Metcalfe, the Main Library Facility Planning report was released including three recommendations; renewal, renovation, or redevelopment. Two years earlier, a Nanos Research survey reported that 83% of users of the main branch were satisfied with their user experience, the wide selection of resources, and central location. At that time, the OPL board supported modernization as its prefered option. This month, the OPL board will review yet another report, this time recommending the construction of a new central library.

The report released at the end of May incorporates feedback from “a very comprehensive public engagement process” including the public meeting at city hall on March 31st. 150 people attended the meeting and another 435 tuned into the live online broadcast. A breakout session invited those with a seat at city hall to “dream big” with a “sky’s the limit” vision for a new central library. Due to technical difficulties with the online feedback system, the discussion for those following online was unproductively relegated to Facebook resulting in only a handful of comments.

So, in the words of one of three questions for public input: “How would a Central Library transform our lives and our city?”

The report is a glossy and enthusiastic call for a library that is modern, innovative, connected, landmark, plus a handful more buzzwords. Beyond the traditional library spaces, it should contain a café, restaurants, collaborative workshop spaces, a teen zone, discover spaces, meeting rooms, outdoor and indoor gardens, and all wrapped in a bold—preferably glass—architectural statement that proudly shouts out: THIS IS OTTAWA’S LIBRARY!

It reads as a loud and extroverted vision for a library. Is that not a bit strange for a library? Are not libraries quiet and contemplative places? Yes, yes. I know. Libraries are changing. Digital technology. Virtual space. But are libraries really changing as a response to technology? Read More

We’re thrilled to announce that UrbSanity has received funding from
Canada Council for the Arts—Architecture: Grants to Individuals and Firms.


Thanks to our co-directors, Sarah and Jeff, for their dedication to writing the monthly column for over two years.
Thanks to Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa for your collaboration.
Thanks to our readers and community that inspire UrbSanity.

We look forward to another year of great articles on the architecture and urbanism of Centretown!


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