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



The architecture of the building is closely integrated with the architecture of the landscape, so that the symbolic themes designed into each complement those of the other. At points it is difficult to say quite where the "building" stops and the "site" begins, so that the museum is a transition between the urban landscape on one side and the natural landscape on its other. The museum's plazas, terraces, parkland, and even the building roof (an exotic landscape in its own right) tie the museum into the recreational fabric of the capital's Core Area, not least for the many striking views they offer. The site is a public place of celebratory, entertaining, and recreational activities, amenable to both active and passive uses year-round.

Canadian Museum of Civilization - CD95-717-045
From Parliament Hill, one can view the huge museum complex in its entirety, its flowing lines echoing those of the Gatineau Hills rising in the distance.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD95-717-045

The museum's entrance Plaza relates to the ceremonial route running along Laurier Street. The character sought here is dignified yet animated. The museum has been set back ten metres from the property edge to permit ample access and circulation for pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs, and tour groups, and allow widening of the street as the ceremonial route is developed. Banners and flags, trees, benches, information poster kiosks, other signage, bicycle stands, and street vendors' stalls, meet the needs of users of this area.

Plaza - S2004-1254, CD2004-1376
The Plaza has been given greater appeal in recent years by the addition of the Canada Garden.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, S2004-1254, CD2004-1376

The Plaza, patterned partly on the wonderful festive plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou, serves multiple purposes. The driveway around it allows for drop-off and pick-up of visitors, and accesses the parking garage. Its central area acts as a gathering-place and a welcoming "people place", offering a transition from the urban ceremonial route to the museum proper and a first orientation to the museum facilities. Information about offerings in the museum, and other attractions of the capital, are available. The Plaza offers a direct sight-line to Parliament's Peace Tower, with the view framed by the two wings of the museum. In this it is like the terrace between the two wings of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, home of the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée de la Marine, which commands a marvellous view of the Eiffel Tower. The features of the Plaza define spaces where entertainers can perform before small audiences, and electrical and communications services are available for equipment for larger performances. Visual interest and expression is added to the Plaza by swirling patterns in the walking surfaces (echoing the lines of the building) and varying textures and colour gradations in the poured concrete, by the changing levels framed by long, sinuous seating walls, and by the Canada Garden. The main lobby area of the museum and the curatorial wing, with its sheltering, cantilevered steps, define, partially enclose, and thereby reduce the scale, of the Plaza.

The imposing Grand Stairway, connecting the plazas on either side of the building.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, T2004-221, CD2004-1378
Grand Stairway - T2004-221, CD2004-1378

Just beyond the Plaza is an Upper Terrace, giving access to the museum's main entrance and to the Grand Stairway leading to a lower plaza. The terrace is where dignitaries visiting CMC are formally greeted. It too offers a fine view of Parliament Hill. A small staircase leads up to one of the lower roofs of the building, where a Japanese Zen Garden has been laid out; the space is one of peaceful contemplation. Yet another staircase up from the Zen Garden leads to the roof of the restaurant, where a broad lookout provides panoramic views of the architecture, Parc Laurier, and the cityscape on the south bank of the river. The Grand Stairway is a spectacular passageway down between the two museum wings. Its steps are broad and concavely-rounded; several of the widest form small terraces. It is paralleled on the Grand Hall side by a cascading watercourse which ends in several pools; the waterfall imagery of the stream, and of the stairway, relates to the hall's West Coast theme.

On the river side of the site, bounded by the cafeteria terrace and the Grand Hall, is the Waterfall Court - a transitional area between structure and parkland.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, CD94-738-003
Waterfall Court - CD94-738-003

The stairway ends in the Waterfall Court, defined by the sweep of the Grand Hall and arc of the extension holding the restaurant and other facilities. At first a more intimate place than the upper plaza, it begins as a circular flat area finished in exposed aggregate with accent strips of stone at the edges. The plaza then curves outward, paving changing to lawn in a transition between the man-made architecture and the natural parkland. One role of this plaza, sheltered from street traffic noises, is to provide a place for outdoor performances and demonstrations. Spectators can sit on existing benches, the Grand Stairway, and the terraces of the cafeteria and restaurant. The bowl shape of part of the plaza provides favourable natural acoustics.

Fireworks - D2004-23612, CD2004-1378
Canada Day fireworks.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-23612, CD2004-1378

Beyond the Waterfall Court stretches the riverside park, along the lower-lying strip of the site. The landscaping here enhances the natural slope of the land towards the river to form a natural amphitheatre on which crowds of thousands can gather to watch events such as the Canada Day fireworks, performances on a temporary riverside stage, or events on the river itself. Adventure World, a children's play park, has been created just outside the building. This area is bounded by the National Capital Commission's recreational pathway, adjacent to the river-edge and linking northern and southern ends of the park.

Riverside Park - S98-10127, CD2004-1377
The riverside park.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, S98-10127, CD2004-1377

Zen Garden - D2004-18604, CD2004-1377
The Zen Garden, designed by the renowned landscape architect and Zen Buddhist Monk, Shunmyo Toshiaki Masuno, was added in 1995.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18604, CD2004-1377

The north-eastern corner, which links Parc Jacques Cartier near its marina, was developed in the 1990s to reflect the pre-industrial role of the site by the addition of a dock to display watercraft from CMC's collections.

Cardinal's sculptural forms are designed to use direct sunlight to create an ever-changing pattern of shadows across the museum surfaces. At night the challenge is to make lighting effects equally dramatic, yet also a change of pace.

The lighting design was influenced by the need for visibility (inside and out), direction and clarity for visitors arriving at night, orientation, views to and from the site, sequencing of experiences, safety of users, and building security. The building's exterior lighting had to accommodate viewing both from close range and from above at distant locations; light sources had to be well shielded, therefore.

Lighting - D2004-18573, CD2004-1376
Night lighting of the museum not only serves security, but also makes the sculptural building conspicuous and attractive to viewers in the capital's core area.
© Canadian Museum of Civilization, D2004-18573, CD2004-1376

The public wing is lit mostly from the interior, although surfaces adjacent to the Grand Hall window are also lit, to prevent interior lighting turning it into a mirror. The curatorial wing, on the other hand, is washed in light that spills from other parts of the site. This and continuous edge lighting of the overhangs on both blocks serves security needs. Pedestrian lighting emphasizes comfort and night-time visibility. To allow the eye to adapt to low levels, so that viewers can see into even deep shadows, lighting has been kept below 30 lux where possible; higher light levels create stronger contrasts and would make it more difficult to see at night. Pathways therefore are largely lit indirectly, from the lighting of the building, pools, and the landscaping, rather than by dedicated lamps. Source shielding, reduction of contrasts, and low levels of ambient light permit visitors good night vision.

In September 2002, Louise Lalande of coCreations lighting design inc. received the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America's National Capital award in recognition of her outstanding achievement in lighting design for the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

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