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


The Design Process - CHALLENGES

Given all the diverse sources of information, the challenge of the design process can well be imagined. The museum would be a complex, interrelated set of diverse functions; the architectural programme characterized it as "simultaneously a shopping plaza for ideas, a layman's college, a hospital for artifacts, a heritage temple, and an entertainment centre". Some spaces would require maximum creative architectural expression; others, maximum restraint. Some would be detailed, sophisticated environments carefully fitted to precise functions, others would have to be highly flexible.

Second Level - D2004-18578, CD2004-1376
A plan showing the second level of the museum - both the public and the curatorial wings.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18578, CD2004-1376

The architect saw the design process as beginning from the inside and expanding outward. First, the inner functions of the museum were studied and understood, a shape assigned to each function, and a building shell wrapped around them. The translation of a textual programme into a three-dimensional building, with vertical as well as horizontal relationships between areas, prompted changes from the original specifications, in an effort to reconcile competing needs for adjacencies.

Curatorial Wing -  Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.
The curatorial wing.
© Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd.

Above all, building design had to meet the needs of the collections, the core resource of CMC. This meant environmental conditions suitable to the long-term preservation of artifacts, whether in storage or exhibition galleries. The building structure had to be capable of maintaining those conditions in a climate which has extreme temperature fluctuations. The collections need protection from theft, fire, or other dangers, and functional adjacencies conducive to effective management.

Shelving - D2004-23607, CD2004-1378Shelving - D2004-23608, CD2004-1378
CMC's custom-designed collections storage furniture stands two storeys high, with grating installed to provide a mezzanine floor. Although basically an open-faced shelving, the furniture is highly adaptable - drawers can be fitted in, for example.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23607 (left),
D2004-23608 (right), CD2004-1378

Artifacts require specialized, stable environments to prevent their physical deterioration. Some are highly sensitive to light, which can cause cumulative and irreversible damage. The traditional response of museums to this problem is to reduce the duration of exposure and level of light in collections holding areas, and to create 'black-box' galleries in which filtered light is used in restricted amounts. Natural light is less easily controlled. This presented a problem for Cardinal, who had relied on the use of natural light in his previous buildings to make them vital and stimulating places. Furthermore it was desirable that the new museum have some natural light to combat 'museum fatigue' to which visitors become prone in black-box galleries, owing to a lack of visual orientation and stimulation. Advantage also had to be taken of the scenic views offered by the site.

CMC's simple circulation route, and periodic views to the outside, help keep visitors from becoming disoriented.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18592, CD2004-1377
View to the Outside - D2004-18592, CD2004-1377

The issue of natural light exemplifies a key problem facing the design of museums: are they to be "artifact-friendly" or "people-friendly"? Sometimes the provision of maximum protection for the artifacts and as much public exposure as possible of the artifacts seem mutually incompatible.

In designing the museum for public use, Cardinal was instructed to ensure facilities and amenities catered to the safety, comfort, and pleasure of visitors. There was to be direct and easy access to public areas for all, and the building should encourage visitors to enter off Laurier Street. Exhibition galleries had to accommodate large numbers of visitors, circulating at their own speeds, without congestion or overcrowding at any point. The circulation route was to permit visitors to avoid travelling through exhibitions of no interest to them or retracing their steps to re-enter central areas. Also important was that the building's architecture be a symbol of national pride and identity, and convey the image of an active and dynamic institution, so that it attract tourists from the Ottawa side of the river and draw tourists to the capital expressly to see the museum.

Once the requirements of CMC's staff had been satisfied, the next step of the design process was to apply external factors to the shell, further shaping it to the needs of the site and larger context of the Ottawa River basin. The building was to give Laurier Street greater dignity as part of the ceremonial route; on the other hand its street facade had to make the museum look inviting to passers-by, by providing bustle and colour. Both this and the park side of the museum were to provide a degree of transparency, to give visitors an idea of what awaited them within. The site itself had to be an attractive, hospitable, and dynamic place, with the building providing a framework bounding and protecting special areas of public activities. Above-ground parking was to be avoided, as an unattractive feature; this, together with the satisfactory integration of group arrivals and departures with the internal functions of the museum, proved one of the most persistent challenges during design.

CMC is linked with Canada's political centre - the Parliament Buildings - by view-lines which have a ritual symbolism.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23611, CD2004-1378
View-lines - D2004-23611, CD2004-1378

It was important to ensure the building not act as a barrier. It was not to obstruct access to Parc Laurier, making it clear that site events were public activities to be freely attended by anyone who so wished. It was not to form an apparent wall between Gatineau and the river, and the building height should not extend too high above street level. Nor was it to intrude on a public corridor fronting the river and the recreational trail there. Most importantly, both interior and exterior elements of the building were to protect or enhance certain views of the river and of Parliament Hill. The view-cones that the National Capital Commission delineated, and their intersection, influenced the shaping of the museum's form. Furthermore, the architectural character of the building was to make it easily identifiable as a major tourist attraction. Since the site was low, special attention was to be given to making roofs - highly visible from Parliament Hill, Nepean Point, the Alexandra Bridge, and high-rises in downtown Gatineau - distinctive and interesting.

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