Architectural Vision: Celebrating Thirty Years

View of National Gallery of Canada facing the Houses of Parliament.

When in 1982 the dual competition for new buildings for the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) was announced by the Government of Canada, I chose to participate in the latter. The selection committee, however, decided to entrust us with the design of the National Gallery. I found myself suddenly facing a blank slate.

Archival photos of the site on Sussex Drive before and after commencement of contruction of the new building. Photo Library and Archive, National Gallery of Canada. 


As always, for me at the start of the design process, the site is the generator. Walking upon it on a wintry, crisp day, I concluded that the entry pavilion must abut Sussex Drive, facing Notre-Dame cathedral.  It was essential that pedestrians coming from downtown be allowed into heated comfort as soon as they arrive. Yet the more time I spent on the site, the more I was pulled towards the opposite end, to the West, towards the river, where I could see Hull, across the Ottawa River, and to a magnificent view of Parliament and its library, set upon the escarpment.

Moshe Safdie and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on a tour of the newly opened building. Photo courtesy of Safdie Architects.


In this fluid state, sketch paper and charcoal are the effective instruments of exploration. The soft and erasable medium glides upon the paper and can disappear at the stroke of a hand; organization of forms, circulation; lines to be wiped out and then on to the next, and the next and the next. In the case of the National Gallery building, the embryonic stage extended, first, evolving three rather distinct options, each with its own organizational structure and attitude towards the site and resulting massing. Soon, plasticine clay was brought into the process. I made three models, extending the schemes into three dimensions.

Moshe Safdie, Design image for National Gallery of Canada building, from the sketchbooks of Moshe Safdie. Courtesy of Safdie Architects.


At that time, I also began to speculate about the language of the architecture. How will the building grow out of the rocky escarpment of Nepean Point? Should the rocky terrain extend into a building built of masonry, echoing the surrounding – the monumental building of Parliament and the Ottawa cathedral, complemented perhaps by crystal-like formations of glass?

From the outset, I was conscious of the sense of ceremony that the building must evoke. Set in the heart of the capital, facing Parliament, it called for celebratory procession spaces. While the program called for a “foyer suitable for receptions and events”, I soon upgraded it in my thoughts, referring to and thinking of it as “The Great Hall”.

Exterior view of the Great Hall, National Gallery of Canada.


How high would one have to be to enjoy this dramatic view of the Capitol and the Ottawa River, I wondered? Workmen were called-in, building a wood platform, rising eight meters in the air, with a provisional stair allowing access. Standing atop the platform confirmed the necessary height for the floor of the Great Hall. Looking back towards the cathedral, we were an estimated eight meters above street level. Thus was born the idea for the “Great Ramp”; gently sloping at a 5% walkable slope from street entrance to the Great Hall. Later we would discover that this was the same length and slope as the great Bernini ramp abutting the Scala Regia in the Vatican, a confirmation that brought approval to our proposal.

Entrance walkway, the "Great Ramp", National Gallery of Canada.


We had proposed that a buff-colored sandstone, as used in Parliament, should be the stone of the National Gallery of Canada. Alas, it turned out to be a stone quarried in the United States. “For the National Gallery we must have a Canadian stone,” demanded Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. An unexpected and rapid search yielded the possibility of a pink/ grey granite from Tadoussac, Quebec. There was a weekend to rethink the building in this new hue. A series of sketches of various spaces in the building, in buff and in pink, led to what seemed to be, at the time, a brave decision –to go pink.

An art museum is primarily about galleries, places for the display of art. One of the dominant themes of the project was the provision of daylight for the enjoyment of viewing the art. It needed to be daylight that nevertheless could be controlled to meet conservation demands. It became clear that in order to accommodate the program on the site, we would stack two levels of galleries, one atop the other. It seemed appropriate that the Canadian collection would be at the level of the Great Hall, the piano nobile, with the European and American collections located on the floor above. Traditional museums have always provided generous skylights to the upper floor, depriving the lower floor of any daylight. But as Jean Sutherland Boggs, Chairman of the Canada Museums Construction Corporation, put it, in a challenging tone, how could we possibly provide daylight for the European and American collection and not the Canadian?

View of one of the European galleris on the upper floor, National Gallery of Canada.


We set out on two tasks: first, invent a system to provide daylight for both levels of the galleries, and second, design the galleries so that they would respond, specifically, to different parts of the collection. After some search, the concept evolved of having shafts penetrate through the upper floor, lined with mirrored surfaces, carrying the daylight from skylights on the roof all the way to the Canadian galleries at ground level. The models were persuasive, but all had to be tested. A life-size mock-up was constructed, and once the system confirmed, was embraced for the building.

Lighting control system, including sails, in the Great Hall, National Gallery of Canada.


To accommodate diverse parts of the collection, we developed a more open plan typology and primarily white gallery for the Contemporary Collection. In contrast, we developed a series of vaults for the more traditional collection. Particular finishes and roof geometries were devised. For example: The pitched-roof, white gallery for Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire and other contemporary works, and a red velvet lined vaulted gallery for the Baroque collection.

Interior view of the Great Hall, National Gallery of Canada. Photo Timothy Hursley. Courtesy of Safdie Architects.


Today the Great Hall, overlooking Parliament,  the Ottawa River and the Canadian Museum of History, has become a place of community. Formal at times, it is the setting for dinners for Heads of State, corporate events and exhibition openings. The public ascends towards the Great Hall, up the Great Ramp, with the sense of monumentality. As I was reassuringly told by the Governor of the Bank of Canada when the gallery opened thirty years ago,This building succeeds in being both monumental and totally humane.” It was perhaps the greatest compliment of all.


Moshe Safdie's National Gallery of Canada building opened May 21, 1988.  Join the celebrations on Sunday, May 20, 1988; for details see the NGC's Events listing.  To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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