Urbsanity – A lesson from Charlie Brown

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Jeff Salmon
March 16, 2013

Located at Gladstone and Cambridge, a row of town homes with a small retail component on the corner is nearing completion. The development blends in seamlessly with the grey, beige, and brown tones that are overwhelmingly popular in Ottawa, and that is exactly the problem. The façade lacks any articulation and the two shades of grey stucco do little to inspire passersby to take a second look.

This is in stark contrast to a few years ago, when the same site housed arguably one of the most recognizable buildings on Gladstone. Yes, the Adult High School and St. Anthony’s Church stand out, but not quite like this.

Prior to the demolition of the previous building, a series of unconventional events resulted in an impromptu street art piece. The building was once home to a pawn shop; however, following the death of the owner, it sat vacant and, over time, became overrun with graffiti and drug abusers. The City told the former owner that he was responsible for removing the graffiti and maintaining the appearance of the house until it was torn down. As a rebuttal, the owner’s agent painted the entire house bright yellow.

Though it was scheduled to be torn down only a month later, the permit process took far longer than expected and the building became a landmark. What began as a statement against the City resulted in a piece of street art, when the bright yellow hue inspired someone to paint a black zigzag across the Cambridge elevation, evoking the image of Charlie Brown.

Surrounded by greys and browns, the stunning yellow paint job certainly stood out in the neighbourhood, and although such a bold statement is not always desirable, it did make it obvious just how bland Ottawa is as a backdrop.

This is not a problem localized to Centretown or Ottawa but most North American cities; however, there are ample opportunities to change this. Sites similar to the one at Gladstone and Cambridge are being developed throughout Centretown, making these the best opportunities to break from the current mold. This does not mean these developments should be bright yellow, but they don’t have be two or three shades of grey.

The Beaver Barracks project, more specifically 111 Catherine Street, commissioned by the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC), is a good starting point. Even though it is made up of grey and black, green and yellow panels are used to brighten up the façades. The use of brick and stone throughout the entirety of the project are in keeping with buildings in the area, while the corrugated metal siding and coloured panels give 111 Catherine Street a more contemporary aesthetic. The result is a group of buildings that fit well within the existing fabric of the neighbourhood, but don’t simply blend into the background.

Although new development is the most opportunistic way to reinvigorate an area—even though this is not always the case—the Charlie Brown house has shown that existing buildings, even derelict ones, have the potential to make a statement.

Simply commissioning street art in the form of murals on public walls, or even between buildings, adds character to a neighborhood and is also a great way to support the local art scene. There are some great murals scattered around town and it would be nice if they became more commonplace. To be clear, this is not a campaign for a technicolour city but rather a hope for a rich environment that reflects the vibrance of the community.

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