Canadian Consulting Engineer

Museum with a Message

In the last 25 years Canada has built three national museums — all with unforgettable structures. The soaring glass walls and curving concrete of the 1989 Canadian Museum of History (formerly Museum of Civilization) dominate the Ottawa...

October 1, 2014   By Bronwen Parsons

In the last 25 years Canada has built three national museums — all with unforgettable structures. The soaring glass walls and curving concrete of the 1989 Canadian Museum of History (formerly Museum of Civilization) dominate the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill. The 2005 Canadian War Museum a kilometre or so away hugs the ground. Its interior is a labyrinthine complex of dark passages and jagged forms.

The newest, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opened this year and is this year’s Schreyer Award winner (p. 22). What an extraordinary edifice this is, and how skilled are its structural engineers at CH2M HILL! The building stands high above the flat Winnipeg landscape, a large mountainous form, with tumbling blocks forming the walls on one side, and a broad curve of glass facing the city. Inside are long narrow ramps recalling perhaps the journey of the human soul, or journeys to death during past atrocities.

The location of the new museum in the geographic centre of the country means that most of us will have to make a special journey – a pilgrimage – to visit it. Perhaps that’s how it should be, given the institution’s high ideals and purpose. As others have pointed out, the fact that it is named the Museum “for” Human Rights, as opposed to being the standard Museum “of” Something, has implications. The choice of “for” shows that the museum’s purpose is not just to educate, but also to advocate for an ideal that will change human behaviour.

I fear, however, that a visit to a museum will not make all that much difference in the grand scheme. Given that heads are rolling in countries like Syria and Iraq, and poverty rages on around the world, we’re a long way off a perfect state of universal brotherhood and respect for others’ rights.

But I digress.

This issue is dedicated to the celebration of excellence in engineering. The Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards are chosen partly for the projects’ technical innovation, but also for their social, economic and environmental benefits — for how they improve people’s everyday lives.

So the winners include projects like the wastewater treatment plant in New Victoria, Cape Breton, that CBCL designed to clean up the water contamination from old disused coal mine shafts. Similarly we have Pinter & Associates’ work on remediating contamination from a fertilizer plant in northern Alberta.

For sheer beauty and excitement, the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park by Morrison Hershfield is incomparable. Like the Winnipeg museum, this project’s construction was not without controversy. However, few would miss a chance to enjoy the expanse of Canada’s Rocky Mountains from its cantilevered glass deck.

Finally, it’s interesting that among the 20 winners, 11 are projects by small and medium-sized Canadian firms. In the feature “Small Firms” on page 78 we explore how these companies are coping today in an industry dominated by ever larger, multi-national corporations. Based on their strong showing in the awards, it’s clear that small and medium firms are still performing at the top of their form. Bronwen Parsons


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