Ottawa Architecture Week: buildings are characters too

Words by Tina Barton

Michael Simon is really into light. That’s why for eight years he worked in what the average person might consider a lighting store (and certainly he fielded at least one misguided inquiry; more about that soon). But what Michael actually dealt with was the business – and beauty – of lighting design. The way lighting transforms our very surrounds. “Lighting was always a touch point for me when thinking about design.”

These days, Michael works on large-scale public art installations. But he’s never entirely left his lighting roots behind. And it was that chance phone call – and a few other obscure encounters – that led him to his current gig with the upcoming Ottawa Architecture Week (September 28 to October 5).

Have you heard of Ottawa Architecture Week? Started in 1987 by Philip Piazza, then serving his first term as events coordinator for the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects (ORSA), Architecture Week is a week-long program of events that celebrates the role of architecture in society, and aims to build a bridge between architects and the general public.

Close to 30 years later, Philip – now a senior project manager of architecture, design and construction with the City of Ottawa – remains the same passionate crusader for a liveable “built environment” as he was then. “Architecture has an impact on people – in the places they work, go to school, their homes, all types of facilities. So the nature of that product or outside urban space has an impact on people’s behavior – good or bad. It’s important for the public to understand the value of architecture… and be engaged. And because we are the nation’s capital, we have an even greater role to play.” In other words, participate in public consultations when developers are in your neighbourhood, Philip urges.

Relevantly, this year Ottawa Architecture Week focuses on the theme of intensification. Ottawa is one of Canada’s fastest growing cities, so how – and where – to accommodate the future generations? How people accommodate themselves is the very topic Michael is exploring at Nuit Blanche this weekend, and Ottawa Architecture Week thereafter. But before getting into that, it’s best to understand Michael’s path to here.

The short version is that it all started with a misplaced phone call. Andrew Morrow,a practicing painter and teacher at Ottawa University, was on the line looking for a type of light. Michael politely explained the nature of the firm and redirected him. Yet two years later, he again found Andrew on the line, but this time Andrew’s call came with an invitation…

“He called in looking to buy a light bulb, not understanding what our firm did. Two years later, he called back looking for me to work on Nuit Blanche!” exclaims Michael. “We turned the underside of Confederation Bridge into a gallery of computer-animated paintings.” There, Andrew’s triad, the “Strangeloops Collective”, activated paintings from Ottawa U. students to a soundtrack facilitated by sound artist Donna Legault, which built upon the sub-sonic vibrations of overhead buses, footsteps, cars; even water flowing through underground pipes. “My role was to use light and structures to guide people through the space to the sensors set up by Strangeloops, which in turn activated the digital paintings.” Michael pauses for breath. “It was interesting because I had to build scaffolding to hold the lights – we weren’t allowed to attach anything to the bridge – and the scaffolding ended up being its own lifelike character… just like the janitor you see every day at your office. Like the scaffolding had a personality, like it was doing a job. I saw it as having its own life.

Cue the arrival of Ottawa Architecture Week 2014. Chair Nico Valenzuela approached Michael about exploring the topic of intensification. “I just had the idea it would speak to what Architecture Week is trying to do and how it tied into the idea that behind-the-scenes, temporal structures could be characters themselves,” muses Michael.“They really wanted a visual statement on intensification; not looking at the topic as a criticism, but that the piece should reference that. In my head I started putting this piece together… and Nico really jumped on the idea of a vertical campsite.”

What Michael is referring to is “The Piece Tower,”  his five-storey, 10 x 10 installation, where construction site meets campground. It’s about examining what we’re willing – and forced to – live with in everyday urban life. “Look at when we go camping and take our walls down. That’s your chance to get away. When we go out into big, open spaces and go back to being more vulnerable, that’s the aperture of release, that get-away moment. Yet 50 weeks of the year, you’re willing to live in a confined space…”

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Think about it… How do you reconcile privacy with urban living? Do you feel your privacy is invaded, your freedom overshadowed? Or does your neighbourhood – your “community,”  if you’re lucky – strike the right balance?

Ottawa Architecture Week is your opportunity to consider and contribute to the discussion. From September 28 to October 5, you can participate in a full program of talks, building tours, workshops, local and international exhibitions, and a movie night and panel discussion. Discover more details and register here.


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