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



From concept to opening, designing and building the new museum was a long, demanding, and sometimes frustrating process; yet also rewarding for the many persons who contributed their creative energies and hard work. The end-product is a building acknowledged as world-class.

Cardinal departed from the international style of mid-20th century architecture which expresses the collective ethos of the commodity-based society. The repetitive elements of that style, appropriate to the industrial age, are giving way in the information age to an architecture reflecting human functions and informing viewers about the nature of the activities and rituals that the building serves. Cardinal's work frees itself from the industrial age's architectural paradigm and hearkens back to an earlier, tribal paradigm, without losing sight of the great architectural achievements of this century. He relies mainly on the organic forms of Art Nouveau, but applied on a scale more monumental, and marries his creative style with that information age marker, the computer. While his earlier architecture reflected images of the Prairies, CMC symbolizes a Pan-Canadian landscape - Canada at the end of the Ice Age - and evokes Native longhouses, earth lodges, and igloos.

Final Model - D2004-23606, CD2004-1378
The final model of the museum shows how the building was split into two separate wings, to allow for a view through from Gatineau to Parliament Hill.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23606, CD2004-1378

Cardinal's first abstract vision of the museum-to-be was necessarily modified, yet the fundamental character and sense of identity remain intact. The most obvious difference is that the museum has been fanned open mid-way to provide the appearance, from Laurier Street, of two separate pavilions. The opening provides an unobstructed view of the Parliament Buildings from the street and access to the riverside. The whole building was kept low to avoid obscuring views from buildings across the street. Cardinal also drew the northern end of the museum back from the Alexandra Bridge, again to permit a clear view towards Parliament from the corner of the bridge and Laurier Street. His original design, like a reverse 'S' shape, broke into two discrete curves, one convex the other concave, which were rotated roughly 45° in a counter-clockwise direction.

Curatorial Wing - D2004-18593, CD2004-1377
The curatorial wing of the museum was designed to be the best possible home for the nation's treasures. In addition to the environmentally controlled rooms holding the artifacts, the wing houses facilities for collections management, research, and conservation, as well as staff offices and workshops.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18593, CD2004-1377

The northern, or curatorial, wing contains the collections holding areas, laboratories, workshops, and staff offices. The southern wing houses the public facilities: galleries, theatres, and Children's Museum. The public wing dips towards the river more than the curatorial wing, which runs more nearly parallel to Laurier Street. Both blocks are curvaceous on the river side, to blend with the natural landscape, but present a straighter facade to the street, where entrance lobby, gift shop, and theatre foyer present bustle, colour, and activities appropriate to the urban context, and inviting to passers-by. The facade is punctuated in the centre by a great hemispherical entrance plaza, giving pedestrian access to the main entrance and vehicular access to the parking area. The two wings wrap warmly around this welcoming plaza. Under the semicircular plaza lies the parking area.

Public Display Wing - D2004-18594, CD2004-1377
The public display wing contains exhibition galleries, theatres and other public spaces.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18594, CD2004-1377

The whole building has been compared to two petals of a flower with a stamen. The "stamen" is an offshoot, between the two wings, projecting into the riverside park. It houses food services, a lounge, and a library.

Cardinal has made the roof areas varied, intriguing and, in places, accessible to the public. Three long copper vaults rise above the exhibition galleries, and domes top the IMAX theatre and a visitor rest area. By contrast, the curatorial building is a sweeping arc that presents a terraced effect. Its cantilevered structure leaves no level exactly above the level below: upper floors overhang or recede.

Plaza - CD98-188-043
The two wings of the building embrace the semi-circular entrance plaza.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD98-188-043

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