An Immodest Proposal Rankles a Capital Known For Modesty

A Rendering of a Planned Monument Has Been Criticized By Ottawa's Mayor and Others / ABSTRAKT STUDIO

Friday, February 27, 2015


You can make out Canadians' reputation for modesty in their capital, a city that has largely avoided erecting anything you might call monumental. None of Ottawa's landmarks are built on the grand scale of, say, the Arc de Triomphe or the Washington Monument - not even the national war memorial or the tower of the main Parliament building in the city center.

The small park next to the Supreme Court down the street is pretty modest, too — a nameless and featureless bit of green space now used mainly as a shortcut to a parking lot. But a politically charged proposal to fill the park with a monument that would be anything but modest has prompted protests from the mayor and other politicians, riled the architectural establishment and even been questioned by the country’s chief justice.

The plan, put forward by a private group but heavily championed and partly financed by the current Conservative government, is to build an immense concrete memorial to the victims of Communism around the world, covering 54,000 square feet and rising four stories high.

To the memorial’s growing number of critics, the idea of using one of the last pieces of open land in the city’s parliamentary district not just for an outsize monument but for one that does not commemorate any direct event in Canada’s history is an unacceptable break from tradition.

“We are not a country that overthrew the yoke of Communism,” said Shirley Blumberg, a Toronto architect who served on a design review panel and voted against the design that was chosen. “I would understand if we were Romania, to have this monument at the center of our democracy. It is not central to our history. It would be like the Americans putting this on the Mall in Washington.”

The park was not likely to remain a park forever: It had long been earmarked as the eventual site of a new courthouse for the Federal Court of Canada, which now sits in an undistinguished office building. But many from the architectural world and beyond share Ms. Blumberg’s view that it is not an appropriate place for such a monument.

Jim Watson, the city’s mayor, has called the design “quite a blight,” and too big for the site. Both the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Ontario Association of Architects have asked the government to find another location.

And after viewing the final design proposals, the chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, warned the government in a letter obtained by The Ottawa Citizen that the monument “could send the wrong message within the judicial precinct, unintentionally conveying a sense of bleakness and brutalism that is inconsistent with a space dedicated to the administration of justice.”

While much of the debate has focused on the location, Ms. Blumberg has been just as outspoken about the aesthetics of the planned monument. All six of the submissions reviewed by the design panel were “really quite poor,” she said, and the winning bid, by Abstrakt Studio Architecture, was “bleak and oppressive,” giving a “very literal and brutal depiction of violence.”

That, said Voytek Gorczynski, the founder of Abstrakt, is precisely the idea.

“Her comments as to the design being visceral and brutal, I take that as a compliment — that was the intention,” said Mr. Gorczynski, who was born and raised in Poland and jailed there for political activism as a student.

He said the design was an attempt to literally illustrate the organizers’ estimate that Communist regimes around the world had caused the deaths of 100 million people. The monument would feature 100 million 5.6-millimeter squares, laid over 14 concrete walls joined into seven inverted V shapes. When seen from a platform incorporated into the memorial, the squares would become pixels, Mr. Gorczynski said, forming an image that has yet to be selected.

Right now, the renderings show an image of a mass grave of Polish officers killed by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest during World War II. At the front of the monument, a sculpture shows one victim lying facedown.

Mr. Gorczynski said the design was specific to the site, and to the views it afforded of the adjacent Supreme Court building, which is regarded as one of Ottawa’s most significant buildings. “What bothers me is a lot of people are commenting on it without seeing what it is,” he said.

But Ms. Blumberg said that monuments related to wars and terrible historical events “that are really widely acknowledged to be truly great,” like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, have taken a different approach. “They all try to rise above the subject and talk to what we’ve learned and what this means for the future of humanity,” she said.

Many critics argue that the site was turned over to Tribute to Liberty, the nonprofit group behind the memorial, without an appropriate public process. The Department of Canadian Heritage, which is responsible for the project, did not respond directly to that accusation.

“A variety of sites were looked at, but this one was considered the most appropriate, given the proponents’ requirements, the theme and proposed scope of the project,” the department said in an email.

Ms. Blumberg and others have said they believe that the project is being pushed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as part of a political agenda. Canada is scheduled to hold a federal election this year, and the country’s large number of citizens of Eastern European heritage, particularly Ukrainians, tend to back Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party. After she agreed to join the design jury in September, Ms. Blumberg said that she was told by officials that a winner had to be chosen that month “because the prime minister wants this built before the next election.”

The Heritage Department said it “cannot speak on behalf of a jury member,” but added that the overall design selection process lasted eight months, “typical of any project of similar scope and magnitude.”

Ludwik Klimkowski, a financial adviser in Ottawa who is the chairman of Tribute to Liberty, denied that the government had backed the project for political reasons, insisting that critics were motivated by dislike of Mr. Harper’s government or by ethnic prejudices. “I think the majority of the people who are raising some concerns are Canadians from white Anglo-Saxon backgrounds,” he said. “That face of Canada has changed.”

Nor, Mr. Klimkowski insisted, was it fair to call the proposed monument bleak. “It is about the wonderful story about Canadians and Canada’s refugees,” he said.

Ms. Blumberg, who is Jewish and was born in South Africa to a family of Eastern European heritage, said she found the whole argument dispiriting and contrary to the democratic values that first drew her to Canada.

“Diminishing people because of their background, that’s certainly not what I thought Canada is about,” she said.

Tribute to Liberty has apparently not yet raised all of the 2.5 million Canadian dollars it is providing to the project, whose overall budget is 5.5 million Canadian dollars (about 4.4 million American dollars).

Even so, the government said in a statement on Thursday, the project is scheduled to break ground this summer, and “it is expected that the major elements for this memorial will be completed within 12 months.”


Click here to read Heritage Ottawa's position on the proposed Victims of Communism Memorial.