Author Archives: Sarah Gelbard

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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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