“It’s like being an actor,” he says. “You rehearse for weeks and weeks, and then it’s up to the audience. Either they like it or they don’t.”
He needn’t worry. Waiting for our one o’clock appointment, I whiled away the minutes in the Piccolo Grande, Ottawa’s top gelato shop. I asked the 20ish manager what he thought about the new CMC building across the river. “It’s really exciting looking,” he replied animatedly. “I can hardly wait to get into it.”
And an hour after my thrilling hard-hat odyssey with Cardinal, I asked the same question to my waiter in Daly’s at the Westin, where I was coming down from my architectural high with boar in lingonberry sauce, accompanied by the stunning night view of the Rideau Canal. “I love the way it breaks away from the boxy,” he replied. “All curves and changing shadows. I’ll bet it draws a lot of tourists here.”
Lots is right: The National Capitol Region authority is counting on a million visitors, between the brilliant glass cathedral of Moishe Safdie’s National Gallery of Art (1988) and the Cardinal work which faces it from Hull, Quebec—across the Ottawa River.
Cardinal drove me (and his 26-year-old son, Bret, and Cheryl Nicholas, his step-daughter and secretary) around the astonishing two structures before we donned hard hats and protective shoes to tour the insides.
He is especially pleased with how the two buildings frame Parliament Hill, on the bluff across the river. That’s the center of political power in Canada and a proper focus for the new center explaining Canadian history to the voting public.
God knows Cardinal has gotten to know the ins and outs of political power. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, impressed by Cardinal’s feistiness as an advocate of political power for the Amerinds (he’s one-eighth Blackfoot), told him in 1982 to start building the CMC even though construction drawings had to be executed one jump ahead of the almost 200 contractors involved in the highly complex structure.
Looking back at the megahassles that have sorely tried his patience, Cardinal says, “It’s been like composing and conducting a symphony simultaneously. When John Turner (briefly) and Brian Mulrooney (semi-permanently, it seems) acceded to the Prime Ministership, the CMC went through the meat grinder of the succession.
At one point in 1985, Cardinal was so disgusted by the double-taking that he threatened to have the project bulldozed back to the gently curving slopes that are such a sweet complement to the sinuosities of his computer-generated designs.
If it took 81,000 simultaneous equations to figure out the contours of the self-supporting thin-shell concrete roof of his first masterpiece—St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, Alberta (1968)—just imagine the coordinates involved in the curving insides and outsides of the CMC.
The copper roofs have eight layers to deal with the severities of Ottawa temperatures differentials, as well as a totally controlled inside atmosphere to protect the artifacts. And because the buildings rest over an earthquake fault, Cardinal has segregated the structures into 12 independent zones—minimizing any domino effect should a tremor happen.
But Cardinal is no mere technician. He is a humanist, fretting over the Anglophone / Francophone crisis, making the Hull side of the ensemble inviting to the local population—which is almost entirely Francophone, even though the sister city of Ottawa started out as an English-speaking outpost on the bottom edge of Quebec.
Nor is Cardinal a prima donna. He has worked mightily to develop a true comradeship between the Francophone Montreal architectural firm in charge of construction and his own people.
Cardinal told me one of the things he really liked about the University of Texas (from which he graduated with honors in 1963) was the can-do attitude that prevailed there. “Canadians are not nearly as adventurous as the Americans,” he said.
The man who pioneered the use of computers in North American architecture sweet-talked the Portland Cement Association into financing his St. Mary’s roof computations at the largest computer then in existence (1965), at the University of Chicago’s Fermi Lab. The code authorities in Red Deer were monumentally skeptical about such a roof not crashing down on the congregation.
He is also eager to serve. In the international competition he has just won to build a science center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Cardinal’s research told him that the moon was very important iconographically in Muslim thinking. So his planetarium is a concrete-shell moon thrust up into space by a diagonal cantilever strut (which also holds the escalator that takes views into the “moon”).
The gorgeous Tyndall stone (found only in Manitoba) which acts as visual counterpoint to the copper roofs at the CMC is an emblem of the formation of the Canadian land mass by glaciation and weathering.
He used a gray variant of that stone (whose mottled surfaces are actually fossils “you can read,” he notes) in the baptistery in St. Mary’s. In the CMC, it is from the beige section of the quarry.
If the exteriors symbolize the hard and difficult land that the Canadians have made to flower with their character and ingenuity, the interiors are constantly changing expressions of the emergence of Canada as the most minority- and Third-World-sensitive industrial power.
CMC director George F. MacDonald is especially open to Canada’s indigenous peoples—as an anthropologist who specialized in Haida art and other Northwest Indian cultures. This predilection makes him a priori simpatico with Cardinal, who spent so much time in Ottawa decked out in long hair and Indian gear agitating for Indian rights in the 1970s hat his architectural practice went bankrupt.
Thus it is no surprise that the sweepingly elliptical Great Hall (19,182 square feet, with a bank of windows 365 by 50 feet looking out on the magnificent bluffscape of Ottawa across the river) gives pride of place to six Northwest Indian tribes.
Their hand-carved traditional houses were already in place, sheathed in plastic, awaiting the finishing audio-visual touches, such as the largest photograph in the world—a read-screen scrim projection of a rain forest. The forecourts of these dwellings were designed for ritual performance, their curving upper walls for multimedia projections.
Bill Reid, the Haida Indian nation’s premier artist, has sculpted a traditional canoe for the west end of the Great Hall and a killer whale for the top of the escalator on the east end, drawing visitors irresistibly up and into a deeper comprehension of Canada’s pluralistic history.
The second level centers around a participatory children’s museum and the world’s largest Imax and Omnimax theaters. The kids from one to 91 who don’t succumb to this all enveloping cinema will fall easily to the decorated Pakistani bus left over from the Vancouver Expo—just one of the 3.5 million artifacts (estimated value: $6 billion) the CMC has found deteriorating on over 65 sites in the Ottawa region.
The third level is the History Hall: 10,000 years of Canadian experiences. There is a Norse landing site (ca. 1000 A.D.) and a Basque ship and whaling station (ca. 1560 A.D.) to symbolize early European contact.
Recent Canadian history (1940 to the present) centers on a cannery, a British Columbian logging scene, an exhibition of social change, a setting of the North and the Yukon and, finally, an exhibit on the boom-and-bust cycles of Canadian economic history.
With Cardinal’s state of the art temperature and humidity control system, no matter what the outside temperature fluctuation, the CMC keeps a steady course on 70 degrees F., 50% humidity.
In the Ottawa River region, the intellectual temperature is also steady as it goes. Fending off hip-shooting charges that the $250 million-plus facility is Disneyland North, director MacDonald contends his participatory tactics will increase access to museum experience from the current dismal 20% of the population to a more satisfying 80%.
Cardinal couldn’t agree more. The CMC is more than a user-friendly facility, it is user-fond: ramps and easy-open doors for the handicapped, large print and Braille signage, acoustical boosters for the hearing impaired.
And since all of us re more or less intellectually handicapped (by the standards MacDonald and Cardinal have chosen), the architecture inside is what Marshall McLuhan called “aggressively pedagogic.”
Too bad Marshall didn’t live long enough to live it up inside this global village of a museum. He would have loved the messages Cardinal’s medium is making accessible so much more effectively than the old storehouse, passivity-inducing kind of museum. And you will too. Starting in July.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 3, 1989