Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?

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2 thoughts on “Talking through Walls

  1. The chap who runs the Museum I work for used to work for the V&A. I never thought about using palimpsests in an architectural context. I like the look of that new tower. Very inspiring.

  2. got to say I don’t like the glass tower. well I like the tower and the staircase is cool but it looks very plunked down to me. I would love it if they had done more to unite the glass and stone than just plunk the glass tower on top of it.

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