Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Doors Open: Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat

(Oops, I meant to schedule this to go up yesterday. Sorry!)

It's that time - Doors Open Ottawa is back for its tenth anniversary in Ottawa. In what has become a bit of a tradition (more links are at the bottom of this post), I'm posting photos from one of the buildings I saw last year, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, the Agha Khan foundation's fancy building at 199 Sussex.

The building was lauded when it opened for the quality of construction and the design of the spaces. Chief among them was the "crystal", a glass enclosure at the centre of the buliding.

On the same August 2009 weekend that I toured 111 Sussex, I took some exterior photos of the building. I was rather disappointed that, other than the "crystal", the building is mostly a white box in a field. A well-built white box, but a white box nonetheless.

At Doors Open 2010, I got to check out the interior. Going in the rear entrance (where could be found the nearest bike rack substitute), you walk through a glass passageway into the open courtyard. The glass is patterned with geometric patterns, a theme common in Islamic art and architecture, which generally frowns on iconic imagery.

The courtyard provides a nice gathering space for events, though it didn't escape the strong winds that day. Framing the courtyard are two wings of the building, which have frequent tall, narrow windows (the proportions of the blinds are pretty amusing).

As we enter the main part of the building, note the exit sign above the door. It sits perfectly flush with the wall, having been built into it instead of being a crude accessory. These are the types of details that polished the critical acclaim of the building.

Inside there is a grand vestibule, underneath the "crystal". The inlaid floor, while subtle, is very elaborate. Various types of screens temper the light to keep it from getting too bright, or too hot. There are also skywalks connecting the second floor rooms and offices at the rear and front of the building.

You can see the elaborate patterns of the screen from the second storey. They're metal screens with two relatively simple patterns superimposed. I suspect they let more light through when the sun is at a shallower angle (i.e. in the colder months) than when it's at a steeper one.

The screen is suspended above the ground level, keeping it open while still separated from the other uses to the side. There is also an undulating blanket of triangular fabric screens above, creating a contrast to the patterns in the glass panels of the crystal.

Close up, these screens are made of fabric with a rather complicated mechanism of frame supports.

At the edge of the main room are various uses. There are various rooms with educational functions (including a small theatre and a resource centre). At the edge of the glass on this side, there is a little rest area in unobtrusive colours. It reminds me of the lounges for Porter Airlines.

Heading to the back of the building, two wings contain offices of various types. (You can also see how the light comes into the hallway through those narrow courtyard windows)

Surprisingly, many of the offices were empty despite the building being open for two years. They are for swing space to be used by various temporary initiatives, or visiting groups from other parts of the foundation's network.

The humble design aesthetic is visible in the functional parts of the building, too. The labels for the women's washroom, electrical room, and fire extinguisher cabinet look like they were designed in Cupertino. (Actually, in the event of a fire, I seriously wonder whether anyone would be able to find the fire extinguisher)

This was also evident in the thoughtful arrangement of the exit sign, public address speaker, and vents. It's like the whole building was designed to calm you. (I wonder if this extends to nighttime, wintertime, and overcast days)

So there's the building. It's easy to tell that a lot of thought and effort went into the design and construction, even if the result looks plain at first glance.

The 2011 season of Doors Open Ottawa has 20 new buildings in addition to the dozens returning from previous years. The additions include two in Somerset Ward: the must-see Chaudiere Falls No. 2 Generating Station and the CCOC's new Beaver Barracks development.

Last year I shared the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park and the previous year I posted Old City Hall at 111 Sussex, neither of which (nor the Delegation featured in this post) appear to be on the roster this year. See also the label for other tours and multi-post series.

All of them are free, so there's no excuse not to go!

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