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Former Sussex Drive war museum ready to reopen as the Global Centre for Pluralism – Ottawa Citizen

The Global Centre for Pluralism - Sussex Drive

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The place where Canadians once came to commemorate this country’s contributions to war has been boldly reimagined for the 21st century as a centre that fosters pluralism and celebrates diversity as a new international value.

Built between 1904 and 1906, 330 Sussex Dr. was designed by David Ewart, the chief dominion architect. His other notable buildings include the Royal Canadian Mint and the Canadian Museum of Nature. It served as the dominion archives for 60 years before becoming the Canadian War Museum in 1967.

The three-storey Tudor Gothic stone building has been vacant since 2005, when the war museum relocated to its new space on LeBreton Flats.

Now, a decade after a $35-million restoration led by KPMB Architects — and paid for by the Aga Khan —began, the Global Centre for Pluralism’s international headquarters officially opens on Tuesday.

When the Citizen was given a sneak peek inside late last week, workers were busy with the finishing touches.

Project manager Farhad Mawani explained how Ewart wanted Ottawa to have buildings that befitted a capital city and, for their time, had modern touches, such as open concepts, plain white walls and exposed beams. Some of the materials used, then and now, include white oak and marble.

Considered a classified federal heritage building, the renovations to 330 Sussex — which sits between the National Gallery of Canada and the Mint on a perch overlooking the Ottawa River — had to be minimal and sensitive. “We didn’t just want to start ripping everything out,” Mawani said.

Design work was completed in 2013, lead and asbestos were removed the next year, and construction began in earnest the year after that. The Centre’s 14 staff have been working out of it since January.

An addition, built in the 1920s, will be occupied by the Mint. A third wing never materialized, so the building has retained its asymmetrical, L-shape.

Two things now set the building apart from earlier versions of itself.

A new courtyard off Sussex featuring benches and blooming flower beds is intended to draw people in and create a new public space.

“Already, even though it’s been a bumpy start to spring, there are lots of people coming and sitting and chatting, and that’s the idea,” secretary general John McNee said in an interview.

The forecourt, as he called it, is unquestionably lovely, but the building itself feels austere, colonial and stuffy. It doesn’t scream pluralism or diversity.

But McNee said its august location on the ceremonial route between Rideau Hall and Parliament Hill sends a signal that these are important values in Canada. The idea for this centre dates back to the 1990s when the Aga Khan began asking Canadian leaders to explain the success of Canada’s approach to diversity.

Plus, when the building was the war museum, a giant tank greeted visitors. “That’s not terribly welcoming,” McNee said.

The other unique feature, on the building’s back side facing the river, is an angular window that juts out, bathing all three storeys in natural light. Viewed from inside, it acts as a magnet, pulling people to it, compelling them to stare out over the river below.

It symbolizes opening a door to the river and simultaneously acts as a nod to the organization’s raison d’être to position Canada as a country that’s open to the world.

KPMB took the trefoil design that’s repeated on the building’s parapet and reinterpreted it to create a pattern that is used as a screen on part of the window and also for acoustic panelling in one of the centre’s key spaces.

Elsewhere, walls are adorned with Canadian art. The idea was to choose artists or pieces that tell a story of pluralism in Canada. Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, who sits on the centre’s board, was on the committee that selected the art.

The Global Centre for Pluralism is one of 150 buildings participating in this year’s instalment of Doors Open Ottawa. Curious members of the public can visit on June 3 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The Global Centre for Pluralism is also part of the National Capital Commission’s Confederation Pavilions program. It will be open from June 7 until the end of October for self-guided tours on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons.