Beautiful brutalism: why one Ottawa urbanist thinks concrete can't be beat

Sarah Gelbard will be extolling the virtues of the much-maligned architectural style known as brutalism as part of a talk for the Westboro Brainery tonight.

Sarah Gelbard loves brutalist architecture, and thinks you should too

You might think the dozens of hulking concrete buildings that dot Ottawa's downtown are cold, impersonal eyesores. 

Well, Sarah Gelbard wants to change your mind.

Tonight, Gelbard will be extolling the virtues of the much-maligned building style known as brutalism as part of a talk for the Westboro Brainery, a community-run series of educational courses on everything from understanding architecture trends to making kimchi.

"If you take a bit of time to get to know these buildings, you actually see this very different character," says Gelbard, co-director of architectural idea hub yowLAB and an editor of urbanism magazine Spacing Ottawa.

Characterized by an extensive use of concrete, brutalism flourished in Canada during the 1960s and the 1970s as a reaction to the modernist glass and steel buildings of the early 20th century, says Gelbard.

Today, however, popular sentiment seems to be moving away from what Gelbard calls the "introverted" charms of brutalist buildings. Earlier this year, the National Arts Centre — perhaps Ottawa's most distinctly brutalist building — received $110.5 million to reimagine its concrete front entrance in time for Canada's 2017 celebrations.

In 2014, demolition crews brought down the 11-storey Sir John Carling building, a brutalist office tower near the Experimental Farm that had housed Agriculture Canada employees for more than four decades.

Gelbard says it's unfortunate Ottawans don't think more highly of those two buildings — as well as the Ottawa Central Library, which could look quite different if a new central branch is eventually approved — since brutalism was the style that coincided with much of the city's urban development.

"Because a lot of Ottawa was built through the 1960s and 1970s, it had a huge impact on the [urban] environment. But we don't really think of those as great buildings."

Moreover, it would be a shame if brutalism disappeared altogether from the city's skyline, she adds.

"We need a bunch of different types of buildings in the city," says Gelbard. "In ten years our vision is going to change, and we're going to miss the days when we had warm, welcoming, cozy spaces."

Gelbard's Westboro Brainery talk is sold out, but you can peruse our photogallery of some of the best — or, depending on your tastes, the worst — examples of brutalism in the nation's capital.