As the nation’s capital, the city of Ottawa sometimes gets a bad rap for its architectural landscape dotted with 60s and 70s era concrete government buildings. However, there are also many examples of beautiful and historically significant structures found throughout the city.
In addition to architectural gems like the gothic revival buildings on Parliament Hill and the Aberdeen Pavilion in Lansdowne Park, the city boasts an impressive collection of museums designed by prominent architects. Not only do these cultural institutions hold a substantial amount of Canadian history and culture, but the structures themselves have earned international acclaim.
To highlight these buildings, we put together a photo tour showcasing some of the most popular museums in Ottawa. Check out our photos below.
Canadian Museum of Nature
Location: 240 McLeod Street, Ottawa
Architects: David Ewart (1910)
Padolsky, Kuwabara, Gagnon Joint Venture Architects (PKG):
Barry Padolsky Associates Inc. Architects, KPMB Architects, and Gagnon Letellier Cyr Ricard Mathieu Architectes (2010)
Officially named the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (VMMB), this grand, castle-like structure was designed by chief architect David Ewart in the Scottish Baronial style. Completed in 1910, the VMMB was the first building in Canada constructed to house a national museum after an 1856 Act of Parliament was granted to the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC).
Between 2004 and 2010, the museum underwent an intensive renovation project led PKG Joint Venture Architects, a consortium of architects including Bruce Kuwabara of Toronto’s KPMB, Ottawa-based Barry Padolsky, and Gagnon Letellier Cyr Ricard Mathieu Architectes of Quebec.
The comprehensive task saw the interiors gutted, a steel skeleton installed, new climate control systems added, and the piece du resistance — the addition of the Queen’s Lantern. This stunning glass addition sits above the main entrance and replaces Ewart’s original stone tower which was removed in 1915 due to unstable soil conditions. From the outside, the luminous glass structure adds a modern element to the building, while inside, a new Butterfly staircase was added to improve visitor flow and access between the second and fourth floors.
Canadian War Museum
Canada’s national museum of military history was once housed inside a federal heritage building at 330 Sussex Drive. In 2005, the museum moved to a brand new facility in the LeBreton Flats site in downtown Ottawa, just west of the Parliament Buildings. Prior to construction, the National Capital Commission embarked on a major remediation program to remove large volumes of contaminated soil left on the former industrial lands.
The theme of regeneration is echoed in its design where architects Raymond Moriyama and Alex Rankin were inspired by the impact of war on the land and nature’s ability to regenerate, recover and renew from the devastation. Notable features include the use of recycled copper from the roof of the Library of Parliament, a 115,000-square-foot green roof, and Morse Code windows that read “Lest We Forget.”
Canadian Museum of History
Located on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River, the Canadian Museum of History — formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization — sits prominently across from Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa. However, it’s not just the museum’s location that makes it stand out. Its exterior architecture, designed by Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal is defined by curving forms and undulating shells that are bold and distinctive easily giving it landmark status.
Constructed in 1989, Cardinal’s firm was one of the first to use computer-aided design (CAD) in Canada, which was was required to prepare plans for the complex curvilinear architecture of the building.
Inside, the museum houses 25,000 square metres (269,097 square feet) of display space including the impressive Grand Hall with its soaring ceilings, curved six-storey window walls and spectacular views of Parliament Hill.
National Gallery of Canada
Location: 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa
Architect: Moshe Safdie
Just down the street from the Canadian Museum of History is another national landmark by a renowned Canadian architect. Opened in 1988, the National Gallery of Canada was designed by award-winning architect Moshe Safdie who was also the mind behind Montreal’s iconic Habitat 67.
Clad in grey and pink granite sourced from Tadoussac, Quebec, the post-modern structure consists of several light-filled galleries and quiet courtyards that showcases a large collection Canadian, European, American, Asian, Inuit and contemporary art.
Upon entering the gallery, a cathedral-like colonnade leads visitors from the main entrance on Sussex Drive to the stunning conically shaped Great Hall inspired by the Library of Parliament. Soaring 43 metres (140 feet) this light-filled rotunda offers expansive views of the Parliament Buildings and the Ottawa River and is topped with an intricate display of nylon sails.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
The origins of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum date back to 1964 when three separate government-owned collections were combined to form the National Aeronautical Collection. It was housed in a series of World War II-era hangars at the Rockcliffe Airport until 1988 when the current Aviation Museum was built.
Through the years, the museum accumulated an extensive collection of aircraft and artifacts from both civil and military service, which led to the need for two major additions. The first was in 2005 when the main building was supplemented by a new 8,200 square metre (88,265 square feet) reserve hanger. Envisioned by Montreal-based Arcop Group, the new hangar is wrapped in a shiny galvalume metal and was designed to represent the power and grace of flight with a roof that resembles an airplane wing.
In 2011, Cole + Associates Inc. in collaboration with Reich+Petch Architects were tasked to design the second expansion of the museum, adding 1,486 square metres (16,000 square feet) of space to the original building. The major renovations were focused on the front of the building adding a modern glass entrance and foyer, a new auditorium, additional classrooms and more storage space.
While it may be the smallest on our list, the Bytown Museum is arguably just as important to the city of Ottawa. That’s because it explores the city’s rich history including its early days as a lumber town called Bytown, the construction of the Rideau Canal, and its emergence as the nation’s capital after the signing of Confederation in 1867.
The museum is housed in the Commissariat Building which was originally built as a treasury and storehouse during the construction of the adjacent Rideau Canal. The Georgian style stone building was designed by Scottish-born Thomas McKay and is located along the Rideau locks between Parliament Hill and the Château Laurier.