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



Despite the physical changes to the architecture, the structure's symbolism remains essentially as originally conceived. It is based on a representation of the land as it was when humans first arrived, over 15,000 years ago, and on the topographical history of the site. It is a sculptural monument to the distinctive landscape that faced the first people to come to Canada, in the epoch when the Ice Age glaciers were receding.

Curatorial Wing - CD94-738-007
The sweeping curves of the curatorial wing symbolize the rocky outcrops of the prehistoric landscape.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD94-738-007

The curatorial wing, in which are buried the collection holding vaults, is an image of the outcropping bedrock of the Canadian Shield, which itself holds the nation's mineral wealth. This bedrock was eroded and its angular forms smoothed by the glaciers that overrode it. Then the outwash streams from the melting glaciers undercut the rock; these streams - one of which was once on the Parc Laurier site - are echoed in the watercourse flowing down between the two wings.

Curatorial Wing - CD95-717-028
The curatorial wing and some of the parkland in front of it.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD95-717-028

The public wing, fronted by the huge glazed Grand Hall, is emblematic of the great wall of the melting glacier itself. The copper roof vaults will eventually turn green, and represent the eskers and drumlins of gravel and glacial till as vegetation recolonized the land. Finally, the parkland between, and before, the two halves of the building depicts the plains over which mankind migrated millennia ago. All this seems an immensely appropriate symbolic starting-point for the story of the Canadian peoples since their coming to the "New World", told inside the museum.

Public Wing - CD94-608-022
The public wing, fronted by the huge Grand Hall, as seen from the riverside park.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD94-608-022

The building's cladding was selected to complement its architectural goals. Although variegated brick was a trademark of Cardinal, he felt that for a national monument stone was more appropriate; also it can be made to flow better with the curve of a building, lasts longer, and requires less maintenance. Brick was considered as a dressing, to save money, but injection of extra funds allowed the use of a rough-split Tyndall limestone from Manitoba. This buff-coloured fossiliferous stone is durable and easily carved; appropriately, the limestone was itself overridden by glaciers. The embedded fossils provide an element of visual surprise in the sculpture. The copper roof cladding helps the otherwise unconventional building harmonize with the other great buildings on the south bank of the river. Roof domes and roof overhangs are lit at night by concealed fluorescent tubes. The curatorial wing, washed by soft lights from the surrounding landscape, seems glowing and mystical. The public wing is lit mainly from the inside; it is like a transparent display case, inviting glimpses into the inner world of the museum, or a sparkling gem nestled in the river valley, beckoning to people on the far bank.

Fossil - CD2001-58-041
The Manitoba limestone used for the museum is itself a witness to the Glacial Age whose passing the building form symbolizes; embedded fossils remind us of an even earlier stage in the evolution of life.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD2001-58-041

The Grand Hall is the pivotal feature of the museum. Its great window was a source of problems in the design process, allowing in natural light that threatened the artifacts. Splitting the building into two wings permitted the Grand Hall to be turned so that its window faces north-east; as a result, direct sunlight enters only in the early morning. These, and other windows in the public wing, are triple-glazed, coated with a film that helps contain radiant heat, and tinted to screen out much of the solar ultraviolet. The Hall's exhibits are against the wall farthest from the window, and some particularly sensitive artifacts are shielded by specially-shaped columns that punctuate the giant window.

The Grand Hall is shaped rather like a canoe, appropriate to its Native theme.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18595, CD2004-1377
Grand Hall - D2004-18595, CD2004-1377

The glazed front of the Grand Hall not only allows external viewers to look in but offers dramatic views of the river and Parliament Hill. It thus exploits the symbolic connections of the museum with its heritage surroundings. The museum is quite unlike traditional western architecture in which buildings are aligned in rectangular grids determined by straight-line axes. Cardinal has used two parallel straight lines and one circular axis to align CMC. One straight axis is also a line of sight down the centre of the Grand Hall, through the six-storey bay window at the river-end of the hall, and across to Parliament's Peace Tower. Along one side of this symbolic axis, and parallel to it, is aligned a diorama of the monumental sculpture of Canada's Pacific Coast Native Peoples, to emphasize their contribution to the heritage of the nation and the world.

Grand Hall - D2004-18571, CD2004-1376
The Grand Hall, with its huge window-wall, acts as a giant display case for lifesize exhibits, known as environmental reconstructions.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18571, CD2004-1376

It is rarely appreciated that museums are highly-charged, symbolic space/time capsules in which social value hierarchies are made manifest. Architects and artists dealing with space since the Lascaux caves or Stonehenge have understood that all space is hierarchical and symbolically loaded. This is particularly true of ritual space, which works on axial alignments. It is especially potent where a secondary axis crosses the primary one - and here the crossroads model is relevant. Ritual spaces, from the dragon lines of ancient Chinese geomancy, to the desert tracks of ancient America, the lay lines, megalithic alignments, and cathedrals of Europe, have embodied this rule. The axial principle has also been applied to CMC.

A corollary of the central axis concept in architecture, which deals primarily with interior space, is the concept of matching alignments in exterior space. Often the central exterior axis will cross the interior axis, as in cathedrals where the transept crosses the axis of the nave. Or it can parallel the interior axis. CMC's major exterior axis parallels that of the Grand Hall, and aligns the centre of the entrance plaza with Parliament's Peace Tower - a happy opportunity for photographers. Crossing the interior and exterior axes is the circular axis: Confederation Boulevard, the ceremonial route; the intersection of the exterior axis and this ring provides a compass point which defines the entrance plaza.

Cardinal's use of circular ritual space in his architectural style means that there is no preferred point of view for the building itself; instead there are many viewing points, determined by tangents on arcs of circles. One perspective after another reveals itself as the viewer moves around and through the building, offering plenty of scope to photographers.

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