It has been said that brutalist architecture is “unloved but not unlovely”.

$15 & up/person
Experiential 2 Hours Suitable for ages 12 and up

What do you see when you look at concrete?

Beyond the monolithic, opaque, concrete façades are buildings filled with drama, mystery, and strong civic focus. In the post­war building boom and leading up to the Centennial, grand and heroic ideals of civic welfare and cultural identity were translated into a new vision for Ottawa. The abstract, technically efficient, and impersonal nature of modernism was too closely tied to war. The strong character of brutalist architecture embodied renewed hope, stability, and humanity. Ironically, today we tend to misread these buildings as imposing and inhuman “eyesores”. Understanding the values and ideals behind these plans and buildings helps us to question what went wrong when they became built realities instead of utopian ideals. Is brutalism more than an architectural style? How does architectural style intersect with architectural intentions? Does architecture have to be beautiful? How do architectural trends rise and fall? The tour will explore these questions and debates through a variety of examples of brutalist projects throughout the downtown core—major and minor, town and crown, public and private, built and unbuilt. The tour includes institutional civic projects, the growing federal civil service, commercial and corporate development, and major urban plans for renewal, infrastructure and beautification.

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Scheduled tour
Happens monthly.
  • Printed souvenir postcard
  • Maximum of 25 people on tour
Private tour
Minimum booking: party of 3 people. Happens if you request.
  • Tour content is tweaked on the spot to cover your interests
  • Printed souvenir postcard
  • Maximum of 8 people on tour
  • Follow-up additional resources by email
Customized tour
Minimum booking: 1 person (or more). Happens if you request.
  • Pre-tour chat with your guide to discuss your interests in topic (optional)
  • Content customized to your interests
  • Printed souvenir postcard
  • Your group only on tour
  • Follow-up additional resources by email

Request a private or customized (de)tour
September 2022
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

Stops along the way (preview):

National Arts Centre; Ottawa Public Library (Main branch); Vanguard building; Varette building; Place de Ville.

Start - 53 Elgin St (National Arts Centre, Oscar Peterson statue)

Thoughts about the National Arts Centre, including its recent big-budget renovation.

Mid-point - 120 Metcalfe St (Ottawa Public Library)

We'll spend time looking at this building's spectacular hidden entrance.

End - 320 Queen St (Place de Ville)

We'll think about what it's like to design seemless connections between buildings that are supposed to be dialogue with each other.

Sarah Gelbard

Your tour guide
Part anarchitect. Part punk planner. Currently pursuing a PhD in urban planning, Sarah is interested in both how we shape our cities and how our cities shape us. Her research focuses on placemaking by alternative and marginalized groups in the city. Her impassioned defense of #OttawaBrutalism shares a tangential but related sensitivity towards the unpopular, the unloved, and the overlooked spaces in our city. Sarah is also the Ottawa editor of Spacing magazine and blog.
“What a lovely tour - I have been living here for 20 years and didn't stop to appreciate the mixed architecture found within this lovely city. I have to say I will never look at Ottawa in the same way - which is a good thing. Definitely recommend this to anyone. Certainly not a typical tour that can be appreciated by visitors and permanent residents alike.”
Constance S.
Tripadvisor review, September 2015
“Interesting insights into underappreciated buildings. I went on the "What's (Not) So Brutal about Brutalism?" tour. I grew up in Ottawa so was very familiar with the buildings -- the NAC, the library -- but it was great to learn about the history and theory behind them.”
Nadia H.
Tripadvisor review, July 2015

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