The opportunity to re-imagine and re-design Nepean Point presents a singular chance to enrich the Canadian public’s experience of the Ottawa River landscape, and in so doing, to help restore the river landscape as the heart of the National Capital Region (NCR) in our collective imagination. In response to this opportunity, our design seeks to give a voice to various actors and histories, each one connected to Nepean Point in a meaningful way: the land, the river, First Nations, the Parliamentary and federal landscape of the capital, artists, visitors experiencing the site, and all Canadians. Our design is meant to create an inclusive space, welcoming to all.
Program and design objectives
The Program and Design Guidelines for this project state that success is dependent on achieving two major objectives: encouraging discovery of the park; and, transmitting knowledge of the region’s history and cultural resources to visitors. The first objective can be achieved, in part, through enhancing connections to the park; however, an even greater opportunity lies in building on the unique natural advantage of the site – the promontory vista – to create a new destination that is a ‘must see. The power of the vista can serve to unlock the first objective, and can also act as the primary means to address the second objective. The Ottawa River valley is arguably the primary carrier of the region’s rich and layered national and local cultural associations, histories, and narratives. By improving and redefining the way visitors view and interact with the vista across the valley, and by creating rich sensory experiences of what we call the ‘Big River Landscape’, an effective strategy for interpreting and transmitting these associations, histories, and narratives will be established.
Natural advantages of the site
Nepean Point’s most powerful attribute today, and since time immemorial, is the broad panorama it offers over the majestic Ottawa River valley. Visitors to the space are presented with an awe-inspiring vista, punctuated today by many of the capital’s most iconic and picturesque federal buildings and monuments, whose locations were determined by the River, the heart of an ancient Indigenous cultural landscape. Sublime in nature and civic in context, the geography of Nepean Point makes it a premier site among the public landscapes of Ottawa. It presents itself as a place to experience and interpret the rich ecological values, as well as the historic and continuing cultural narratives that define us as Canadians.
The Ottawa River is the central organizing feature of an ancient cultural landscape of exchange (commercial and cultural) and journey (transportation and travel). The city that would eventually become the capital was sited in relation to the river and its development and evolution (transportation, defense, industry, power generation, and the siting and form of Parliament Hill and the Parliament Buildings) were shaped by the river. However, over time, the relationship between Ottawa and the river, and opportunities to experience it visually and physically, have deteriorated significantly.
The river is currently perceived more as an ‘edge’, which is reinforced by the administrative role it plays as the border between Ontario and Quebec. Today, the National Capital Commission (NCC) envisions a re-conceptualization of the Ottawa River as the ‘heart’ of the National Capital Region. The natural features of the site provide a powerful opportunity for a re-designed Nepean Point to play a foundational role in this broader and longer term effort to re-position the Ottawa River in the local and national imagination. While Nepean Point as a space is physically separated from the river, sitting high above the water, as a place it is inseparably tied to the landscape of the river. From its earliest human associations, the river has been a place of journey and exchange, a theme that is prominent in our proposed design.
The River, reinterpreted
The Big River Landscape serves as a gateway that reinterprets the river landscape and is the medium to discuss and celebrate our layered histories. Where historically goods and products were traded, the proposed reinterpreted ‘river’ is now a choreographed journey of exchange: of ideas, beliefs, dialogue, and new cultural memories.
Nepean Point is envisioned as a park in which to experience the ‘Big River Landscape’, by bringing the sensory and aesthetic experience of the landscape to the foreground.The proposed park design offers a range of experiences:
- The meandering meadow paths are intimate, and slowly ascend to the Gathering Circle at the upper promontory. Visitors experience the river via the sound of the wind in the trees, chosen for their heightened sonic quality, and the movement of the meadow grasses, before the river becomes visible. While the meadows and sloping lawns offer more quiet and contemplative moments, the culmination of the two paths at the Gathering Circle offers a place for discussion and conversation.
- The River Walk Esplanade is a destination for an enchanting stroll high above the river, taking in the views, the smells, and the breeze. The pavement features a range of textures, revealing subtle patterns reflective of the river and the sky in low light conditions. Connected into a broader path system to the north and south, it has a civic quality, and will be a place to people-watch.
- Whispering Point provides deep seating nooks, tucked into the landscape, in which one can listen to stories and narratives emanate from within the landscape, while experiencing the power and force of the river.
- The Vessel, embedded into the landscape, provides a stage and amphitheatre, whose form alludes to the birchbark canoe, reinforcing the connection to the Ottawa River.
- Three re-envisioned entrance points and connections welcome and invite visitors into the site while setting the tone for the Nepean Point Park.
Connections to the gallery and beyond
The adjacent National Gallery of Canada has recently undertaken a re-visioning of the Canadian and Indigenous galleries, creating opportunities for new forms of dialogue about our intertwined histories and identities, presenting a ‘deeper and stronger narrative’ from which to move forward. Given the powerful relationship between the Ottawa River and these histories, a rich opportunity exists at Nepean Point to create a park that connects with and complements the National Gallery of Canada experience, grounding these histories and narratives within a landscape setting.
Fully embracing the views and vistas of Nepean Point, our proposed design is organized around a perimeter promenade and two climactic nodes: Whispering Point, a sheltered space which provides a unique auditory experience and encompassing views of the valley, and a central promontory and communal fire pit that provides a gathering space at the highest point in the park.
To access these places, visitors are led through rolling meadows and sloping lawns. Architectural features emerge boldly yet gently from the landscape and are integrated into the earth, disappearing from and reappearing into view as visitors navigate the space. This serves to create conditions where prominence is given, at all times, to the natural landscape.
Within this Big River Landscape, our design seeks to provide a choreographed journey whereby the many voices of Canada - future and past – can be heard. As one moves through the site, the voices emerge: the gently rustling leaves of the cottonwood trees, the power of the churning river below, the subtle, ephemeral narratives at Whispering Point, and the animated dialogue around the fire. Nepean Point becomes a platform and space for expression and exchange.
Our vision is driven by a number of design strategies, including and building on those outlined in the Design Brief. Of primary importance is the restoration and enhancement of connections, both physical and spiritual, between Nepean Point and the surrounding Big River Landscape. Through new and better defined physical connections to the space, and through the creation of new spaces within the park, visitors will be able to connect to the river landscape and its stories in ways not currently possible. These connections and spaces enhance the aesthetic of the park while creating a transitory experience through which the Big River Landscape can be interpreted.
Our vision includes establishing vital new places for people along the river’s edge where art, music, theatre, history, education, festival, relaxation, and pleasure are brought together. Building on the past, the spaces we propose will also form a platform upon which new cultural memories can be created. To help spur on this conceptual shift, our design for Nepean Point takes inspiration from cultural themes associated with the river’s past, notably those of ‘journey’ and ‘exchange’, and utilizes these themes to inspire and guide the future of the site. In order to connect to the past, we envision a park where a visitor’s journey through the landscape is punctuated by moments where they can listen to the ‘voices’ of others and contribute their own voice to a dynamic conversation. These moments occur throughout the park, culminating in the ascension to the highest point of the promontory where the great vista across the Ottawa River valley can experienced in an all-encompassing way.
While the vista provides the leading narrative for the site, there are many chapters and side stories that are presented through our proposed design. The ‘Art Loop’ will lead visitors through a symposium of sculptures that are part of the National Gallery’s existing collection, and a new River Walk Esplanade will offer both quiet spaces for passive activities and contemplation, and also wide open spaces for group activities and gathering. Building on the history of exchange along the Ottawa River, we envision a park that allows for and encourages new forms of exchange. We imagine these to include exchanges of both ideas and culture, sparked and supported by a new outdoor performance venue, Whispering Point, an artist designed space, and through formal and informal fireside conversations at the Gathering Circle atop the Nepean Point promontory.
Ultimately, our vision for the space is to create a physically and spiritually connected, contemporary urban green space that provides opportunity for engagement, interpretation and conversation. Through innovative design moves, we have strived to create a framework that will support musical, artistic and festive performances, as well as larger gatherings and exhibitions. The space welcomes all Canadians and visitors; it will re-establish national pride in Nepean Point and, ultimately, be a space that reshapes and redefines a connection to the Ottawa River valley and the Big River Landscape.