Weaving a Modern Plan for Canada's Capital: Jacques Greber and the 1950 Plan for the National Capital Region

By Gordon, David | Urban History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Weaving a Modern Plan for Canada's Capital: Jacques Greber and the 1950 Plan for the National Capital Region


Gordon, David, Urban History Review


Abstract

The 1950 Plan for the National Capital is one of the most significant documents in Canadian planning history. The plan was the guide for the rapid transformation of Ottawa and Hull from rather dreary industrial towns into an attractive modern capital. Jacques Greber, a French architect, planner and landscape architect, headed the planning team. He was personally recruited by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to realize his dream of a capital that inspired pride among Canadians. Greber was considered France's leading planner in mid-century, having completed plans for the Fairmount Parkway in Philadelphia, Lille, Marseilles and Rouen. Ironically, Greber is almost forgotten in his native land; while his legacy is fondly remembered in North America.

Resume

Le Plan pour la capitale nationale de 1950 est un des documents les plus importants de l'histoire de l'urbanisme canadien. Il allait guider la rapide transformation d'Ottawa et de Hull, villes industrielles plutot sordides qui devinrent la capitale moderne et agreable que nous connaissons. Ce fut Jacques Greber, architecte, urbaniste et paysagiste francais, qui dirigea les travaux. Il avait ete personnellement invite par le Premier ministre Mackenzie King a realiser le reve d'une capitale qui rendrait fiers les Canadiens. Greber, qui avait realise les plans du Fairmont Parkway a Philadelphie, ainsi que ceux de Lille, Marseille et Rouen, etait alors considere comme un des plus importants urbanistes de France. Irone de l'histoire, Greber est presque oublie aujourd'hui dans son pays, alors que l'Amerique du Nord celebre son heritage avec enthousiasme.

Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and French Ambassador Hubert Guerin unveiled an Aubusson tapestry of the Plan for the National Capital in the lobby of the House of Commons on December 5, 1950. [1] The tapestry was based on a watercolour rendering of the regional plan (figure 1) executed by Jacques Greber, France's leading urban planner, and consultant to Canada's National Capital Planning Service. [2] The tapestry was woven in 250 colours of silk and wool thread, based upon leaves gathered by Greber in the Gatineau wilderness park. It was a gesture of friendship and thanks from France, and was consistent with Greber's artistic background and approach to representing urbanism.

Ottawa and Hull certainly needed aesthetic improvement after the Second World War. The two industrial towns straddling the Ottawa River had somehow eluded a half-century of effort by the Canadian government to improve the national capital. By 1945, Ottawa was crowded with "temporary" wooden office buildings and civil servants from the war effort. Four previous plans remained on the shelf, to the chagrin of Prime Ministers and planners. In contrast, the plan prepared by Jacques Greber and his Canadian associates was largely implemented in only two decades. It transformed Ottawa and Hull into an attractive, functional and modern capital that was a source of pride to the young country.

The year 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the National Capital Plan, so it is perhaps appropriate to re-examine its legacy. The narrative begins with the plan's champion: a Prime Minister who pursued an improved capital for over a quarter century. Mackenzie King brought Greber to Ottawa, where he is still remembered for his contribution to Canada's capital. Finally, the paper considers Greber's methods and evaluates the plan's content, implementation, and results.

Mackenzie King and Canada's Capital

Between 1903 and 1950, four plans were prepared for Canada's capital. For various reasons, all floundered despite the best intentions of Prime Ministers Wilfrid Laurier and Robert Borden. When William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 1921, he was determined to transform Ottawa into a proper capital city for a sovereign country. King was Canada's longest serving Prime Minister, holding that office for most of the period from 1921 to 1948. …

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