Winston Churchill once said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Location, of course, adds to that effect.
This is how the new headquarters of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa is transforming the 90-year-old organization’s ability to carry out its mandate: bringing knowledge of Canada’s physical landscapes, people and innovations to a national and global audience.
There’s more to this building than a pragmatic modernist arrangement of stone, glass and steel overlooking a waterfall, three rivers and two provinces. “This building ranks with the iconic landmarks home to the Royal Geographical Society in London and the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.,” says John Geiger, CEO of the RCGS. “It takes the RCGS, which has always done a great deal to promote geographical literacy, to another level altogether.”
Read on to find out how 50 Sussex — Canada’s new Centre for Geography and Exploration — is blending an iconic natural backdrop, a historic chunk of the National Capital and a who’s who of trailblazing scientists, explorers, educators, Indigenous leaders and other cultural innovators from across the country to change how we understand our homeland.
For thousands of years before Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and other European explorers, traders and missionaries ever paused their paddles beneath Rideau Falls, this point on the Ottawa River was a frequent gathering place of the Algonquin Peoples. Less than 1.5 kilometres southwest of the falls — in the vicinity of the Canadian Museum of History — lies an ancient burial ground with an estimated 4,900 years of history. Indigenous families came to the delta where the Rivière Gatineau meets the Ottawa, directly across from the present location of 50 Sussex, to hunt game, pick berries, fish, gather other resources and trade.
By the 1800s, log drivers and vast timber rafts coming down the river on slow eastward journeys to the St. Lawrence and Quebec City were a common sight to the early residents of Bytown (Ottawa) and Hull (Gatineau). A pulp-and-paper mill next to Rideau Falls was repurposed to accommodate the first offices and researchers of the National Research Council Canada in the 1920s, the National Film Board of Canada was founded on the site at the start of the Second World War, and the Canada and the World Pavilion, built to showcase Canada’s accomplishments on the world stage, was built in 2000, but stood vacant by 2005.
Watch: Amazing aerial views of 50 Sussex and its surroundings
Located along an important ceremonial route in the nation’s capital that connects Parliament to Rideau Hall, 50 Sussex counts among its closest neighbours the Embassy of France, the South African High Commission, 24 Sussex Drive (the official residence of the prime minister) and the Governor General’s residence. The boulevard is also connected to the rest of Canada by The Great Trail: it was added as an official section and “spur” of the country-crossing trail network in 2017.
Samuel de Champlain was the first to record the twin Rideau Falls’ resemblance to curtains (rideaux in French). The eponymous waterway drops into the Ottawa River on the south side of 50 Sussex. It was the inaccessibility of this portion of the Rideau River to vessels that necessitated the construction of the Rideau Canal’s Ottawa locks, the last section of which lies less than two kilometres to the south, adjacent to Parliament Hill.
Across the Ottawa River and just beyond a fringe of riverside parkland and a wedge of the city of Gatineau, Que., Gatineau Park spreads north and west for 50 kilometres. The park — Canada’s oldest federal park east of the Rocky Mountains — is the finest example of any of the National Capital Region’s protected forests, and preserves major stands of historically important trees and other flora that grow widely across the region, including on the 50 Sussex grounds: red maple, white spruce, red pine, white pine and elm.
Two major galleries fill the main and upper storeys, both of which feature panoramic views of the Ottawa River. Having opened as one of the National Capital Commission’s Confederation Pavilions for the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017, a year before the rest of the headquarters, the spaces have already welcomed thousands of Canadians, international tourists and dignitaries.
The opening year saw an interactive exhibit on the NCC’s 50-year Plan for Canada’s Capital, as well as the debut of Thirteen Moons, a stunning work of panels painted and arranged in an open circle by renowned artist Alex Janvier, a member of the group known best as the Indian Group of Seven. Most recently, the spaces were dedicated to an exploration of how Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s experiences with the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic were applied to his expedition to become the first to reach the South Pole, and to a show by contemporary visual artist Chris Cran — EXPLORE, his one-of-a-kind take on many of Canada’s greatest historical and living explorers, all of them Fellows of the RCGS.
(Exhibit spaces at 50 Sussex are also used for private events, booked through 50sussex.ca.)
The Main Gallery also contains the first Google Earth Wall in Canada, a more than three-metre-high screen that allows users to not only fly around the globe and key in on high-resolution imagery of any location, but to engage with geographical and societal issues — such the Residential School system or the original Indigenous place names of our landscapes — through powerful embedded stories.
The Alex Trebek Theatre
Named for the Honorary President of the RCGS, Jeopardy! host extraordinaire and proud Sudbury native, the theatre debuted its first Can Geo Talk on Sept. 13, 2018.
Fittingly, the inaugural lecture was about Roald Amundsen, first explorer to cross the Northwest Passage and to reach the South Pole, by Geir O. Kløver, the world’s leading Amundsen expert and director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway. On Oct. 19, travel series host, Monty Python legend and author Michael Palin came to recount his own polar adventures in writing a new history of HMS Erebus, the first of Sir John Franklin’s sunken ships to be rediscovered in Canada’s central Arctic.
The 280-seat auditorium will be the venue for Ottawa Can Geo Talks and other lectures by geographers, explorers, photographers and educators, for film screenings, Can Geo Education student events such as the Canadian Geographic Challenge quiz competition and geography research conferences.
The cliffside levels
Built into the promontory beneath the upper-level exhibit halls and beyond the public spaces, the offices of the RCGS and Canadian Geographic unfold for three storeys that look out across the Ottawa River. On one level, the Society offices and collections — among them the wood-panelled and leather-upholstered Sir Christopher Ondaatje Reading Room, housing many artifacts and archives. On the next, the editorial and design hubs, where Canadian Geographic, Canadian Geographic Travel, digital content, Giant Floor Maps and educational resources used in classrooms across the country are conceived and shaped.