Canvas riverfront homes push boundaries with artful architecture

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

By Alisdair MacRae





When I think of a typical house around downtown Ottawa, 19th Century brick structures come to mind, with Arts and Craft-inspired woodworking and decorative elements. Given the city’s historical character, it comes as no surprise that the nation’s capital may not be known for avant-garde architecture. Although buildings such as the National Gallery of Canada or the Canadian Museum of Civilization offer more progressive designs, they are the work of architects working on an international basis.


A few local builders, however, are adding new ideas to Ottawa’s contemporary present—with an eye to the future and a healthy dash of artistry. Jakub Ulak is one of those few.


Having grown up in the area and influenced by his architectural degree from Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanisim, Ulak is well acquainted with the opportunities afforded in the region. And because he is also familiar with the difficulty of making a living solely as an architect, Ulak took on the role of developer when founding Surface Developments a few years back. After realizing a handful of projects around the capital, Ulak’s most recent and most ambitious creation is located at 32 Brighton Street in Old Ottawa South, adjacent to the Rideau River. The scenery is beautiful, as is the project design. Factor in the involvement of local artist Christopher Griffin and you can see that the project name is quite appropriate: Canvas.


This contemporary design infill project consists of two semi-detached buildings, providing four separate family-sized homes. The exteriors of the buildings are decidedly modern, given the emphasis on geometric forms and clean lines—but the vision is much more than something lifted from a slick architecture magazine.


With Canvas and other projects, Ulak says that the site and inspiring design ideas are given primary consideration over spending the least amount of money and building as quickly as possible. He approached the development on Brighton Avenue with sensitivity, given the proximity to neighbours and to the riverfront Brighton Beach Park.


Ulak negotiated with the City to allow a greater number of windows, where a plain wall would normally be built, on the façade facing the park. The agreement also indirectly protects a portion of parkland from future development and provided opportunity for Griffin to create one of his characteristic outdoor murals, offering a large work of art to the public on the exterior of a privately owned home.


Griffin described how he considers the neighbours when working with the exterior surface of a building and does not “compete with” the architect. Instead he uses materials and artistry to add a human element to the architecture, something he likens to the craftsmanship of Victorian homes.


The inside of each unit features the same clean and simple design principles seen on the exterior. In the unit I was shown, the limestone that makes up the façade is also used for the fireplace, and with all the glass and windows that take advantage of the sun’s position, the interior and exterior almost blend together.


The sunken living room features more art by Griffin—two original canvases are included in each unit, combining vibrant colour, formal abstraction and expressive illustrations. Using a process he developed over the last four years, the artist started each work by spreading asphalt on the sidewalk next to the property to make an imprint. The record of various cracks and shapes refers to the history of the location—a location that also inspired Griffin’s choice of subjects, including birds, fish and sunflowers.


Moving up to the second floor, the unit’s paintings are reproduced on sliding translucent panels that face the street side of the building, again included in each unit. The panels can be arranged to provide varying degrees of privacy for the deck areas where they are located, creating a stained glass effect that projects colour into the crisp interior and adds another beautiful exterior element for passers-by to admire.


Ulak’s project presents a bold vision that in some ways challenges the surrounding homes from a different era. While Ottawa’s colonial style homes were also once considered cutting edge, Ulak has avoided creating a nostalgic version of the past and has embraced concerns for the environment through contemporary design and artistic collaboration. While no one can be absolutely certain of what the future may look like, Canvas is an opportunity to consider the possibilities.


Photo credits

Photographer: Mauricio Ortiz and Andre Rozon

Model: Heather D (

Stylist: Asha Binti

Makeup Artist : Sommer Mbonu (

Photographer's Assistant: Conrad Moir