This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on March 27, 2016.
By Don Butler
When Larry Beasley stepped down earlier this month after 12 years as chair of the National Capital Commission’s advisory committee on planning, design and realty, he posted this tweet:
“Through all the trials of the last government, the @NCC-CCN remains strong, caring and innovative. I am sad to finish this assignment!”
Since joining the advisory committee in 2000, the 68-year-old Beasley, one of Canada’s most eminent planners and urban designers, has quietly helped shape virtually every federal project in the capital. He’s no Larry-come-lately. So both his departure and his parting words are worth noting.
That reference to the trials of the former Conservative government, for instance. What’s that about?
“The last government looked at the NCC and its role of custodianship of capital interests differently than previous governments,” Beasley says. Previous governments often delegated responsibilities to the NCC. “The last government felt they wanted to pull some of those things back to the centre of government.”
One of those things was the management of new monuments, notably the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Another was responsibility for programming, which, Beasley says, “was a very strong and innovative part of the NCC for many, many years.”
The period of Conservative rule, he says, was a “difficult time” for the NCC. The highly political victims of communism memorial is a case in point.
Beasley had never encountered a government that just said: “We’re deciding on the site and we’re carrying forward and we’re not going to go through the normal process that makes sure those things are the right scale and the right nature and the right quality.
“They had their own agenda, they carried forward with it, and they did that in part by how they shifted responsibilities for those things,” Beasley says. “But they also did it in part by just deciding they were going to do it in a particular way.”
Beasley, who lives in Vancouver and works on projects around the world, is pleased the Liberal government is relocating the victims of communism memorial to another “decently high-profile” location. “And, frankly, I’m very happy there will be a new (design) competition.”
Monuments and memorials, he says, “tell a story about our country and about us as a people. And we have to be careful about that.”
The Conservative government’s strong-arm tactics had no impact on the advisory committee’s deliberations, Beasley says. “We were very clear that our job was to give the best advice for the country, not to meet any political agenda of the day.”
Not that there was never any pressure to toe the line. “There’s always a sense of pressures,” Beasley acknowledges. “Governments are powerful. Prime minister’s offices are powerful.”
But the advisory committee’s members are independent-minded and “a little immune to pressure,” he says. “We’re not there all the time, we don’t have vested interests (and) we don’t have really anything to lose.”
Beasley never felt any direct pressure. “No one ever came to me and said, ‘Boy, you’d better do this right or you’re out of here.’
“But there were times when people said, ‘This is a top government priority – you don’t want to stand in the way of this,” he said. “We said, ‘Yes, but getting the best should also be a top priority,’ and we would stand our ground.”
Though it only advises the NCC and has no decision-making power, the committee’s expertise has made it extremely influential. Its advice is accepted most of the time.
The committee took the plan to develop LeBreton Flats from a “fairly mundane project to a much more sustainable concept,” Beasley says. It had a big impact on the Zibi development in its conceptual stages and had input into signature projects, including the rehabilitation of the Parliament Buildings.
“I know that we have improved the urban design of many, many projects,” Beasley says. “The aspiration is that the capital be a bit of a model in the country for an intelligent, sustainable development of a city, and I think we tried to do that.”
One high-level project Beasley and the committee considered numerous times was 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister.
“There’s no question it needs a complete overhaul,” he says.”It’s been an embarrassment to the country that the prime minister’s residence has portable air conditioners in the windows and things like that.”
Though the NCC is still trying to decide whether the house should be fixed up or replaced, Beasley strongly favours renovation.
“I’ve heard the argument that it’s an opportunity to express the best architectural mastery in the country, and there’s some merit to that,” he says. “But I think there’s a strong symbolism in 24 Sussex that’s very important to reminding people of the long history of our country and our democracy.”
If it was purely Beasley’s decision, he’d happily carry on with his work on the committee. But his term had already been extended by a couple of years. “They felt it was time to bring other representation.”
He’s hardly retiring, however. He’s doing work in Dallas, Rotterdam and Scandinavia, and is just starting a project in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “I’m a busy person.”
He hopes to have some continuing involvement in Ottawa, as well. “I’ve come to love the city,” he confesses, “and anything to contribute to the capital is a good thing to me.”
The thoughts of (ex) Chairman Larry
- City building is a very complicated thing and you can’t guess it all right. You have to be courageous and try things.
- When a development is in the phase that LeBreton Flats is in right now, a lot of people are critical of it. If the first move isn’t absolutely splendid, they become negative about the whole thing. Once the thing builds out and they can begin to see the formation of a real community, all that starts to change. I think that will change there.
- Victims of Communism was a contentious monument. It did not make sense to a lot of people. It certainly did not make sense to vest that kind of image, regardless of what it was trying to say, next to the most important images of our national government.
- Capitals are always in a process of transformation, because the culture and governance of countries is always in a process of transformation, and the capital needs to reflect that. A capital city is always an unfinished art.
- Parliament Hill, to me, is an extraordinary thing. It needs to be protected and nurtured. In 150 or 200 years, people need to be able to see the same thing and remember where it came from.