Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Peds on Weds: L'Es try something different (or not)

Recently some workers have been spotted on Laurier Avenue affixing drywall to the central podium section of the l'Esplanade Laurier office tower:

Stepping back a bit, both literally and figuratively, the building is a full-block structure surrounded by Laurier, O'Connor, Gloucester and Bank streets.

URBSite has a great post about the building and describes it succinctly:
"Olympia and York's second development (1972-1975) in Ottawa after Place Bell Canada (1969-71), it was everything a megablock should be - twin towers on a supersized podium, two floors of retail in an internal mall, on top of hundreds of underground parking spaces."
I'll link to that article again at the end so you can learn more about the building's history. This post is mostly eye candy in comparison.

The office towers, at 146 O'Connor and 300 Laurier, are watched over by Commissionaires, a mainstay of federal government offices. The entrance to the building doesn't particularly stand out from the rest of the building, but its double-height entrance hall is more visible at night.

The building made use of the pedestrian arcade concept described in the "Hammer" report to facilitate street-level pededestrian routes.

That report, formally called "Ottawa Central Area Study 1969", was prepared for the City, NCC and Ontario Department of Highways and submitted on June 10, 1969 by consultant Philip Hammer of Hammer Greene Siler Associates in Washington D.C.

The report planned out pedestrian routes in the central area, which included connections above and below ground in addition to those at surface level.

We probably dodged a bullet by avoiding those; the city of Regina recently decided to stop building its network of second-level "pedways" because of its deadening effects on downtown livability.

The text in the Hammer report that accompanies that diagram is also interesting, from a historical perspective. The report's plan for alleviating transportation troubles by 1990 was estimated to cost more for parking—$40 million by 1990—than on rapid transit ($17 million) or roads ($25 million), and nearly as much as the two combined.

While heavy on parking, the Hammer report favoured a subway over the 17-lane Downtown Distributor expressway and Bus Rapid Transit recommended by the regional De Leuw-Cather report ("Ottawa-Hull Area Transportation Study," 1965).

It's just as well, since l'Esplanade Laurier was built on one of the many blocks between Laurier and Gloucester that would have been razed to build that expressway. Ottawa was left with the Hammer report's pedestrian recommendations, which was implemented poorly. The above- and below-ground connections never materialized due to the stinginess of the federal government and the builders of the office buildings it occupied, and even those above-ground connections that were built, such as the one through the DND headquarters from the Mackenzie-King bridge to the Laurier bridge, have since been locked up for security fears.

The street-level pedestrian arcades were built in many newer buildings, but not very successfully. In the '60s, it was just assumed that all old buildings would be demolished and replaced with new ones. In reality, older buildings have lasted just fine.

But as an example of the poor execution of this concept, the Jackson building's 1960s resurrection pushed back its first floor to create an arcade. The neighbouring building which occupies the other half of the block along Bank Street also has a colonnade. However, these are unusable as a pedestrian route due to the mosaic artwork visible in one of the photos at the bottom of my Jackson building post. This cuts the arcade in two right in the middle, essentially creating storefronts that are hidden from the street by confining arcades. At the end of the block, you have to walk back to the corner to cross.

So while it's a worthwhile concept, it's executed poorly. The arcades require so many dodges and weaves that the shelter isn't worth the detour, even on the worst winter days. I'm sure the retail businesses suffer as a result of being hidden behind imposing blocky columns.

As for the pedestrian arcade at the Esplanade, the URBSite post points out how the concept has been sabotaged in the interests of 'safety'.

That more or less sums up the pedestrian aspect of the post, but there is still more to be discussed architecturally.

l'Esplanade Laurier also has a second-floor food court, accessed via stairs at Bank and Laurier. To be honest, I've never been inside, so I can't really speak to its effectiveness (except insofar as what you can derive by it never having drawn me in).

The stairs, like the rest of the building, are sheathed in white Carrara marble. Over time, these have deteriorated, and the panels are breaking at their mounting brackets.

Since the photo at the top of the post was taken, the recently replaced drywall in the middle section of the podium has been painted white. It used to also have the marble panels, but as described on URBSite, the panels were removed a while ago when they started falling off. Here's how that middle section appeared in June 2011 (long after the marble panels were replaced with the previous set of drywall):

Replacing the marble panels on the podium would be OK, except for the fact that the building has two heaping towers covered in the stuff. Visually very stunning, but perhaps not the brightest idea to use a soft marble to clad a tall office tower.

The same material was used on Toronto's First Canadian Place, the tallest office building in the country. The same material, used by the same builder, exposed to the same weather, had the same problem. There has been a very extensive project to refinish the BMO tower, as part of an overhaul of the building to add energy efficiency features. Incidentally, FCP also has a pedestrian arcade, except it spans uninterrupted the length of the building and is two or three times as wide and as high as l'Esplanade Laurier's, really highlighting how much smaller Ottawa's blocks are than Toronto's because they can afford this kind of pedestrian space surrounding the building.

First Canadian Place has been reclad in white-fritted glass, and this three-storey collar is where the workers do their magic, making their way down the building to reclad the exterior. The collar is an extensive complex that includes restaurant, office, washroom and lounge facilities for workers so they don't waste their lunch break going down and up the entire height of the building. I assume they're done by now; I took this photo in January 2011 from the 22nd storey of the Metro Hall building:

L'Esplanade isn't quite that tall, but it does make for part of the skyline. The white marble certainly has visual appeal, performing the various visual tricks observed in the previous two blog posts I've done on l'Esplanade.

And thanks to the skew that Bank Street takes at Gladstone, it's visible straight through the Glebe all the way down to Fifth Avenue. (Though the gap between the two towers is being filled by the ugly new condo box going up on Lisgar street)

The low-level drywalling aside, we'll have to see what happens with l'Esplanade's exterior. It's now owned by the federal government which has a long list of buildings to upgrade, so it might take a few marble panels falling off the building before there's any action on it... let's hope they restore the pedestrian features when they do.

As promised, here at the end of the post I'm repeating the link to URBSite's Promenade around l'Esplanade.

URBSite also has another post which shows a historical view down the Gloucester side of where l'Esplanade is now (from the 1930s, I believe).

[Tune in on Wednesdays at noon for a new pedestrian-themed blog post. View the Pedestrians label for previous Peds on Weds posts]

1 comment:

  1. It's actually Hardie Backer Board - a cementitious material used for shower and tub enclosures.