Friday, July 23, 2010

Log 198: Praising a friend: Barry Padolsky’s renovation of Museum of Nature a spectacular triumph

Today I am in the embarrassing position of having to praise to the skies the work of a close friend of mine, Barry Padolsky, the well-known heritage architect.

Usually, as friends do, I am mocking him, calling him sardonically “Mr. Market” or “Front-page Padolsky”, even though I know he has done almost more for the city of Ottawa than any other single person.

Barry is always ready with good advice when some big issue of city planning or development is suggested. And he has had a hand in many excellent works. For instance, I know he has been a valuable advisor to the men who have spearheaded the transformation of St Brigid’s from a disused Roman Catholic church to a centre for the arts. He has designed important clusters of affordable housing, whether for the economically disadvantaged, or the aged. He has overseen such works as the revamping and renovation of the iron fence around the premises of Rideau Hall, and has written reports on the best way to handle the transformation of disused convents, and many other such sensitive projects.

Although no architect I know would ever claim to be solely responsible for his work --- architecture, the creation of new buildings or renovation of old ones, is always a team effort --- I am pretty sure myself that the revamping of the Market building from its long-term white elephant status to its present status as a highly-successful centre of food shops, restaurants and other enterprises, is primarily the work of Barry Padolsky’s imagination.

But what I want to praise him for today is something else. For eight years he has headed the team responsible for the total renovation of the Museum of Nature on McLeod street, which opened a month or two ago. I was away in New Zealand when the opening ceremony took place to the accompaniment, I know, of a great deal of excitement and recognition of his central role. But I did not visit the work itself until this week, when I had an opportunity to show the renovated museum to a young visitor from Los Angeles.

Like me, this young woman, a skilled artist herself, was totally amazed by the quality of the renovation. Its centrepiece is the glass structure Barry has designed and erected on top of the front of the museum overhanging the entrance. It is an interesting visual effect from the outside, but inside its effect is overpowering. For one thing, it is immense, far bigger than it looks from outside, and when one has climbed to the top along the beautiful new staircase built within the structure, one is overawed by the spectacle offered. In addition, the glass of the structure --- the making and delivery of which by some of the world’s leading glass manufacturers Barry oversaw from beginning to end --- appears to catch every kaleidoscopic change in the colours offered by the sky and the outside environment.

But this is only the most mind-blowing feature of the renovation. What was a grey and slightly-depressing interior has been transformed into a sparkling white and pastel cornucopia of lights in exhibition rooms that are simply superb. One must say that the Museum itself has matched with its exhibits the splendour of the surroundings offered by the architects. The dinosaur exhibition is --- I have to content myself with clichés --- simply brilliant. And the only other exhibition I had time to examine, the Bird room, is alive with thousands of marvelously exhibited and hung specimens of the wonderful birds of Canada.

It was obvious to me that everywhere the Museum has provided things for children to do that seem to be not only fun but of educational value as well.

I have just one thing to add about my friend: when I first came to Ottawa in 1977 the city was in the throes of revamping the street patterns around the proposed new Rideau centre. A public meeting was held to discuss this. The official proposal was to transform Rideau street itself into, in effect, a bus station. Barry Padolsky --- who at that time I had known casually for some seven years or so --- was the main spokesperson for those who thought this was a disastrous proposal that would kill Rideau street. Each person was permitted five minutes to make their case, but Barry was not even halfway through his recitation of the solid reasons to oppose this development when a man who had been Mayor of Ottawa, Lorry Greenberg, came out of the crowd, and physically pushed him aside, saying, “Your five minutes is up!”

It was an act of shocking rudeness, but also an ignorant act directed against a respectable dissenting argument. The payoff came many years later when the City Council decided to bring the bus-shelter concept of Rideau street to an end. And the very man who was pushed aside when he warned it would be a disaster --- Barry Padolsky --- was given the contract to try to restore the street to its previous quality. Poetic justice, I suppose, but the whole episode did a lot of unnecessary damage to the cityscape of Ottawa.

Whoever was responsible, Barry’s conscience could be clear. As usual in matters of city development, his judgment had been impeccable. And his imagination, if it had been respected, could have served the city admirably, just as it has done on so many other issues.

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