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Gatineau Preservation Centre. Photo: CNW Group/Library and Archives Canada.

Ottawa architecture tour: Six great modern buildings (since 1950)

By Apartment613 on September 12, 2022


By Eric Haar

In part two of this series, Eric Haar offers a tour of his personal choices for Ottawa-Gatineau’s most exceptional modern architectural landmarks. Read part one, about pre-1950 historic buildings, here.

Hart Massey Residence

400 Lansdowne Road North, Ottawa, 1959
Architect: Hart Massey

Hart Massey Residence. Photo: Parks Canada.

Hart Massey’s beautifully modernist design riffed on Arts & Architecture magazine’s Californian “Case Study” houses of the late 1940s and 1950s, with an especially strong kinship to Pierre Koenig’s Walter Bailey House in Los Angeles (completed in 1958).

The structure is a sophisticated minimalist composition of white board-clad boxes with floor-to-ceiling windows nestled within a black-painted steel armature featuring slender exterior columns, which engages in a sophisticated dialogue with the pristine white volumes.

Dramatically sited overlooking McKay Lake in Rockcliffe Park, the residence has been lovingly preserved by its current owners, Thomas and Susan d’Aquino, who have immeasurably enhanced the site’s seductive beauty by developing lush and gorgeous naturalistic landscaping, above which the house seems to float like a delicate Cartesian airship.

Former CBC Headquarters Building

1500 Bronson Avenue, Ottawa, 1964
Architect: David Gordon McKinstry

Former CBC headquarters. Photo:

Cheerfully bowing to (but decidedly not copying) Marcel Breuer’s UNESCO headquarters in Paris (completed six years earlier), a team of CBC staff architects led by David Gordon McKinstry created a unique modernist gem, still proudly standing in a lush parkland setting.

1500 Bronson Ave. Photo: Public Services and Procurement Canada.

The Y-shaped floor plan (which never really caught on among modernist architects due to its relative inefficiency) offers wonderful access to daylight, excellent cross-ventilation, and a sleek, sculptural and dramatic profile against the sky, featuring a white, flared and floating canopy roof.

Like the Ottawa Train Station, the building’s architectural success relies on its dedicated prominent location, isolated from the urban hubbub. In contrast, the Shaw Centre (which follows below) demonstrates that an audaciously unique design can be beautifully integrated into a milieu densely packed with undistinguished neighbours.

Ottawa Train Station

200 Tremblay Road, Ottawa, 1966
Architect: John B. Parkin

Ottawa Train Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A mighty yet curiously delicate structural steel roof frame, painted a discreet charcoal, hovers over a great waiting hall, its tall glass walls offering splendid views of arriving and departing trains. The Ottawa Station deserves to be cited on any list of the world’s most stunning rail terminals, in the same breath as London’s St. Pancras, Melbourne’s Southern Cross, and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Photo: Google Maps.

It’s unfortunate that rail travel—so fast, safe, reliable, efficient and comfortable throughout much of the world—has been marginalized in North America in favour of long, tiring, and boring intercity drives or cramped flights bookended by transits through inconvenient, dysfunctional airports.

So yes, our rail infrastructure may be seriously lacking, but Via Rail users can still enjoy the exhilarating experience of this spectacular civic gateway!

National Archives Gatineau Preservation Centre

855 Boulevard de la Gappe, Gatineau, 1997
Architect: Ron Keenberg

National Archives Gatineau Preservation Centre. Photo: CNW Group/Library and Archives Canada.

IKOY Architects describes this unique industrial repository as a “treasure chest of and temple to our nation’s memory”—a boastful yet quite apt description of its achievement. The building’s simplicity, power, and seven-bay façade might remind us of Athens’ Parthenon, except employing slender, full-height industrial columns and structural bracket connections to support a sleek wing-like roof.

Inside the Archives. Photo: IKOY Architects.

The facility functions as a “village within a building,” facilitating a host of thermally neutral and sanitary environments for the preservation and conservation of precious archival material, organized within a beautiful overarching container. Architect Ron Keenberg, a world-class high tech pioneer, developed a signature design language employing rigorous detailing combined with the celebratory and artistic expression of the components and systems comprising all of his buildings’ construction.

Shaw Centre

55 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, 2011
Architect: Ritchard Brisbin

The Shaw Centre. Photo: James Peltzer.

Replacing an agreeably sober and understated predecessor, this fearless sculptural creation by bbb Architects is a different creature entirely, animating and transforming Ottawa’s downtown precinct like no other building since Arthur Erickson’s Bank of Canada in the late 1970s.

Combining delight, flexibility and efficiency, in 2020 it was named the “World’s Best Convention Centre” by the International Association of Conference Centres, receiving an annual award that reflects the results of client satisfaction surveys. That’s a testament to Ottawa’s very real ability—in practice, all too often foregone—to create really great civic architecture!

Mutchmor Public School Addition

185 Fifth Avenue, Ottawa, 2017
Architect: Hobin Architecture

Mutchmor Public School. Courtesy of Hobin Architecture.

The venerable Mutchmor School, dating from 1895 and designed by Ottawa architect E.L. Horwood (who was later appointed Chief Dominion Architect from 1915 to 1917), has received a daring yet stylish and sophisticated expansion designed by Hobin Architecture. The new annex engages in a playful dialogue with its Romanesque older sister—a dialogue about scale, materials, proportions, rhythms and colours—creating a result that elegantly and delightfully exceeds the sum of its parts.

Its success serves to illuminate what has been so profoundly unfortunate about many recent schemes to expand Ottawa’s historic architectural gems. The lesson is not that beloved old buildings can’t welcome “modern” additions (even cheeky modern ones), but rather that such interventions demand acute sensitivity, deep understanding, and superb architectural judgement. Mutchmor School exemplifies that high-wire performance, executed beautifully.

Eric Haar is a practicing architect in Ottawa and Gatineau, as well as a sessional professional and regular visiting critic in Design Studio at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. He lives in Merrickville.