For more than 30 years, Marietta Ruhland has worked towards one goal: Making the city a more beautiful place.
The landscape architect works with exterior spaces, striving to bring nature back into urban areas such as the downtown core. One well-known spot is the amphitheatre outside the World Exchange Plaza, a space designed in 1995 by the Perez team, which included Marietta Ruhland as lead landscape architect. The space they designed has maintained its natural look and feel, and has served as a community meeting place for more than two decades.
The courtyard stands out amongst the towering office buildings and concrete roadways with its unique design, prominent set of stairs and natural materials. With three main access points – two from the street and one from the office building itself – visitors are welcomed into a large space set back from the buzz of the nearby busy thoroughfares.
“Many areas of downtown Ottawa are not particularly pedestrian-friendly,” says Ruhland, principal at Ruhland & Associates. “Buildings often go right up to the street, so the team wanted to open that portion of the block up to bring more light in, and bring the person back into the space.”
In collaboration with Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects, Ruhland & Associates transformed the open space into an extension of the World Exchange Plaza that invites the building’s tenants and pedestrians alike in for a moment of reflection.
“Businesses want to have a place they can use outside of the office.”
Bringing the inside out
When designing an outdoor space, no matter the size, Ruhland often explores ways of incorporating elements from inside the building to the outside, creating a sense of cohesion. During the World Exchange Plaza construction, the strong lines and curves of the building were carried through to the outdoors in the various tree bosques and architectural elements, making the outdoors an extension of the indoors.
One of the main visual elements at the plaza is the continuation of the floor pattern from inside the building to the courtyard. Square granite stones are laid out in a large grid pattern, making up the ground level of the amphitheatre and offering a striking visual from Queen Street, which overlooks the space.
The landscape architectural firm, previously named Wheeler Douglas Associates Ltd, also approached the project with pedestrians front of mind. The amphitheatre seating, which is rarely empty on sunny days, provides ample resting space for those passing by, while the adjacent large slabs of limestone give the space a unique aesthetic.
The rocks were brought in from Northern Ontario and are positioned within the treed spaces to further incorporate nature within the dense urban environment.
“Employees in the building benefit from the access to great amenity spaces,” she says. “Businesses want to have a place they can use outside of the office for a change in scenery, or a space they can go and brainstorm, have a discussion and collaborate outdoors.”
One of the main goals for Ruhland & Associates – not only on the World Exchange Plaza project, but with any outdoor space they tackle – is to bring nature closer to the buildings. Outdoor areas should inspire people to reflect on their surroundings and feel comfortable in the space, she says.
The iconic stairs leading up to Queen Street may be a fixture in the neighbourhood today, but the considerable change in elevation from the street above to the entrance at the World Exchange Plaza was a definite challenge when the design team first saw the space 24 years ago.
“This project shows how we are able to take site issues and turn them into design elements,” Ruhland says. “Instead of saying ‘That’s a problem’ we turned it into a positive.”
Ruhland & Associates also faced the issue of how they were going to plant trees and gardens in a space built on concrete.
They designed a tree box that sits below ground level to house a sufficient volume of soil necessary to support the growth of trees and plants. This innovative thinking allowed them to keep their design vision intact, and kept the trees at ground level.
It’s an approach that Ruhland had continued to refine as technology and landscaping techniques evolve.
“People are now talking a lot more about designing and building living streets, and with the new invention of soil cells and water management there is a real opportunity to plant trees that will last 20 plus years within the urban core,” says Ruhland. “We are always striving to research and implement our project’s goals with the latest technologies and sustainable methods, whether through personal research, collaboration with colleagues or courses.”
The amphitheatre at the World Exchange Plaza has withstood the test of time and become one of the downtown core’s most well-known landmarks due to the team’s classic design and choice of materials, says Ruhland, adding that those elements will help the plaza remain intact as a favourite spot for many in Ottawa.