Objective: To develop a proposal for Ottawa’s historic Rideau Street that responds to the growing demand for urban housing.
Response: Canada is currently experiencing the rapid urbanization similar to that which is taking place all over the world. Ottawa is facing an opportunity to rethink the way in which the city can accommodate the housing demand associated with this type of growth. Typically it has simply opted for the obvious benefits of stacking units upwards in the form of towers. This project explores an alternative path to intensification that focuses on community, accessibility and public space rather than tower views and prestige. A formal narrative was developed that accommodates a variety of housing types, engages the development with both landscapes on which it borders, and emphasizes not complex building strategies, but the edges of buildings and the shared spaces that exist between them.
The idea of the home has drastically evolved since ancient times; it now represents an autonomous environment of retreat that must simultaneously maintain a public persona. This ‘new’ home is both a product and a determinant of its surroundings. 417 Rideau represents an answer to this slightly contradicting nature of urban housing by addressing the current human relationship to both the private and public realms. The spirit of this development is not an abstract design hypothesis or an attempt at exaggerating an obscure or esoteric human condition. 417 Rideau simply accommodates and highlights what is most magical about that which already exists — the beauty of the collective and the city’s ability to allow people to live in community. It could be said that this development, in all the these categories, represents a return to the basics. From its construction to the imagined human experience, 417 Rideau challenges skewed notions of progress with what is perhaps the most underestimated intuitive tool in the designers belt — common sense.
The site is located east of the downtown core and has close proximity to all the major urban amenities. With two distinct border conditions, the site must maintain two characters. One is a landscape of fabric while the other is a landscape of figures and by using its unique formal approach, 417 Rideau truly engages with both of the conditions. Instead of stacking the units to meet intensification goals, the units are laterally compressed onto the site, creating a meandering horizontal tower. This form is manipulated in such a way that absorbs both landscapes and is carefully articulated to create both public spaces and different housing types. This formal narrative that was developed was a critical process in the developing the holistic nature of the proposal’s design. This sequence acts as a physical datum to which all aspects of the project must answer to — the result is an architecture of integration, a platform on which all considerations (social, economic, environmental and social) meet and engage in a shared dialogue.
417 Rideau is based on the belief that there are tangible reasons for why people are moving back into the Ottawa. The middle class has traditionally sought refuge from the ‘urban chaos’; So what has changed? We believe that the answer extends beyond the simple convenience that comes with city life and speaks more to the fundamental communal nature of human beings. The diverse environment that is the city creates all sorts of unplanned interactions, and while they may be initially seen as uncomfortable and undesirable, it is these that are actually responsible for the unique enriching experience that urban life can bring. This movement has to be considered when planning city-centre housing for people that are accustomed to the comforts of suburbia and the ‘luxury’ of privacy. We are not, however, social engineers and we do not intend to force diversity on every scale. This is why each building that makes up the harmonious single form of 417 Rideau is specifically designed for a certain demographic. By doing so, the residents are able to maintain whatever standards for their private dwellings and immediate surroundings but are engaged with a socioeconomically diverse community.
One cannot begin to make any social impact without simultaneously considering economic realities. 417 Rideau’s form is directly derived from specific construction methods that speak to this and, in turn, take a unique stance on how profit is generally obtained in today’s housing market. Traditionally, in order to sell urban housing, developers must market an ‘upper class’ lifestyle that often comes with hefty construction costs that are passed down to the consumer. This inevitably creates full housing types (towers) that are out of fiscal reach for the majority of urban dwellers. If we are trying to accommodate families and individuals that are moving into the city from rural or suburban areas, we must understand the general financial situation of this demographic. Property is typically more valuable in the city, so when these people migrate to city centres, they usually are expected to sacrifice some quality of life in order to trade a non-urban dwelling for an urban one.
To remedy this, 417 Rideau seeks to cut the price tag of urban housing by that most obvious of ways —minimizing construction cost. This inspired a movement away from towers to a development where three of the six buildings are light wood frame construction. Along with many other cost-minimizing construction techniques, this leads to a community of homes that can be sold and rented at the bottom end of market rates while maintaining the comforts and quality that the target demographics are accustomed to.
Completed: January 2013
Course: Undergraduate Studio VI at Carleton University School of Architecture and Urbanism
Critic: Professor Ben Gianni
Collaborator: Shane Dalke