When I remember Ottawa, I'll always have the image: "Boxy modernist building across the lake."
Wherever I looked, that seemed to be the story.
Ottawa is a largely planned city, but planned mostly in the era of motorways and modernist boxes, both residential and employment. Everyone was expected to repair to parks for beauty. So there are generous parks along waterways lacing the city, with a network of bike trails along same. It all pretty much follows Le Corbusier's trinity of tower, park, and freeway, a vision so compelling that it guided a generation of architects despite failing the most basic quantitative tests of transport capacity: You can't build enough freeway lanes for towers of that size, if freeways are the only way. Jane Jacobs nailed Corbusier in 1961, before most of Ottawa's Corbusian towers were built:
"His neatly arranged skyscrapers in the park," she argues, "are a terrible oversimplification of urban order. Their rigid separation of functions makes a true diversity impossible; their inhuman scale and vast empty spaces kill off the close-knit vitality of an attractive city."
"Close-knit vitality" is now being built manually, on the flats east of Parliament Hill. This has long been an area of produce markets and funky shops, but now it is sprouting condo towers, hopefully just enough to create a vibrant mix rather than the overkill of Vancouver's Yaletown. The towers are a good thing, though some affordable housing would be even better.
I must admit, despite all this rambling, that Ottawa made me happy. There's a certain lightness of expectation about a city designed to represent a lightweight nation. Canada is more a club of provinces than a discrete place or being. Banners celebrating the provinces are far more prominent in Ottawa than in Washington or Canberra, one of those subtle indications that this is an unusually federal federalism, and thus an unusually contingent capital city.
Bingualism, too, is a delight. Ottawa is a fully and honestly bilingual city. The capital region, consisting of Ottawa and Gatineau across the river in Quebec, is almost exactly bilingual, with a nearly 50-50 split between native speakers of English and French. Here, even the beggars greet you bilingually, pardon-monsieur-excuse-me-sir. I was here when I read Charles Krauthammer's article lamenting the USA's growing English-Spanish bilingualism. Krauthammer calls Canada "a country created of two nations at its birth," and argues that this, particularly the resulting bilingualism, is Canada's weakness. Yet I wondered, as I walked the streets of Ottawa and later Montreal, whether a society that can flip instantly between Anglo and Gallic allegiances may not have just the kind of litheness that the new century will reward.