Written in the Stone - An Architectural Tour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization



The project to build CMC brought Cardinal squarely into the national architectural arena. His understanding of his task was embodied in the opening paragraph of his conceptual design proposal:

"Symbols are the way we communicate. Words and sounds are symbols and writings are symbols of words and sounds. Pictures are symbols of feelings, events, and can communicate impressions beyond words in two dimensions. Sculpture goes beyond pictures to symbolize impressions. Architecture, perceived as living sculpture, symbolizes even more the goals and aspirations of our culture. My challenge is to evoke images, creating images in sculptural and architectural forms that symbolize the goals and aspirations of this National Museum."

He understood too that Canada's history and culture have been shaped by geography. The museum building had to represent this fact by appearing to be an integral part of its site, growing out of the landscape, moving and flowing with the contours of the land like a massive outcropping of stratified rock. Looking back in 1984, he declared:

"Within this great continent, wherein lies this expansive and diverse nation, I could sense the feeling of time, the rhythm of time and the way nature had shaped and formed the land - that the formations had been carved by the elements and forces of nature, by wind, rain, the movement of water, the warmth of day, the coolness of night, the seasons. I felt that the building itself should express the evolution of the natural formations."
Initial design concept proposed by Douglas Cardinal. Birds-eye view: the building "flows with the contours of the land like a massive natural outcropping of stratified, native rock".
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
Initial Design Concept -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

He felt that a building in harmony with the land would be in keeping with the cultures of Canada's native peoples, and therefore thought in terms of the simple lines and forms that make up the artistic designs of those peoples, seeking to capture their grace and beauty of movement.

Initial design concept proposed by Douglas Cardinal. Early thinking about the Grand Hall is seen here; much of the concept survived, but with the series of waterfalls moved to the outside of the hall.
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
Initial Design Concept -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

If the building was to symbolize the land, it also had to permit the embodiment and presentation of the many cultures that have created Canada, to capture the spirit of the country and of its people, and to serve as a cultural bridge. Not only the remembrance of the past, but the dynamism of the present, and confidence in the future needed to find expression in the new museum; CMC may have its roots in the past, but it really addresses the present, by showing that past cultures live and evolve in present-day Canada.

Although his original mandate did not extend beyond design of the building's structure, he anticipated the unfolding conceptual designs for the interior facilities, exhibits, programmes, and indeed the mission of the museum, in his belief that artifacts should be displayed in dramatic settings reminiscent of the past. He noted:

"We all live in the bubble of our own perceptions, and we create the world through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. If we are to fully comprehend the various cultures that are represented by the artifacts, we should bring as many of our senses as we can to the fore, so that we are transported in space and time to the era from which the artifact came; the artifact should be viewed in context of the culture. This can be accomplished not only through physical settings, but through electronic aids such as audio visual, computer graphics, holograms, lasers, and so on. Where one can witness the artifacts in use, and understand the significance of that artifact to the culture, one acquires a better appreciation and understanding of that culture."
Cardinal's First Model -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
Cardinal's first model of the museum as it would appear lit up at night.
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

Cardinal's vision of the museum is well summed up in his Design Statement, made public shortly after the announcement of his selection as architect:

"The Museum will be a symbolic form. It will speak of the emergence of this continent, its forms sculptured by the winds, the rivers, the glaciers. It will speak of the emergence of man from the melting glaciers; of man and woman living in harmony with the forces of nature and evolving with them. It will show the way in which man first learned to cope with the environment, then mastered it and shaped it to the needs of his own goals and aspirations. It will depict man as a creature of the earth who knows his tremendous power to change his environment, yet understands that he must live in harmony with it."
"The building itself should truly aspire to be an artifact of our time, a celebration of man's evolution and achievement. It should point optimistically to the future, promising man's continued growth to a higher form of life, exploring not just this continent or planet but outer space as well. It should endeavour to be a spiritual act, and should demand from all those contributing to its design and construction the very best of their endeavours."
Cardinal's Original Concept -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
Cardinal's original concept was for a single, continuous building. Here the placement of public and curatorial sections was reversed from the museum's final form.
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

The appropriateness of this vision (and the architectural forms in which it was materialized) to the site, to a national museum of human history, and to the evolving vision of the museum's own planners, convinced CMC staff that Cardinal was the right architect for the job. Of all the submissions, his seemed to achieve the best balance between the relationship of the museum to the land, and the relationship of humans to that environment.

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