Proposed Château Laurier Addition a Desecration of Canadian Architectural Heritage
Author's Video Note:
For one hundred and seven years, the Gothic Revival turrets of the Château Laurier have towered above the Rideau Canal not far from Parliament Hill. Different but complementary to the Victorian High Gothic style East Block built in 1866 across the canal, it forms with other buildings in the area, including the Tudor-Gothic Connaught Building which houses the Canada Revenue Agency, the Beaux-Arts former Union Station, or the Second-Empire style Langevin Block, a stately ensemble befitting of a historic national capital like Ottawa.
To the West of Parliament Hill, further down Wellington Street, the Confederation and Justice Buildings in Châteauesque style, as well as the Supreme Court Building which includes a mix of Art Deco and Châteauesque styles, similarly enhance Parliament Hill and can be seen from great distances due to their location above the Ottawa River. Viewed from Gatineau, Parliament Hill, with its Gothic architecture and dense forest reflected off the water, is a spectacle worthy of a great capital. Much of the rest of downtown Ottawa can be described as modernist, with tall rectilinear office buildings mostly of concrete and glass.
Thankfully, Parliament Hill and the grand buildings on Wellington Street continue to hold a prominent place in the urban fabric, due to their strategic location on a hill, but also due to limited sightline rules implemented in the 1990s to protect views on Parliament from different vantage points around the Ottawa region. In comparison with construction height rules in place in Washington, D.C., Ottawa’s rules are lax, but they are not totally ineffective. The Château Laurier was listed as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1981, and Ottawans have assumed that this status would preserve the site by allowing Council and other mechanisms of oversight decision-making over its future.
Today the Château Laurier’s integrity is threatened by an ill-fitting modernist addition and by the failure of Council to understand and use the powers at its disposal for heritage protection. There are several ways historic ensembles can be visually and symbolically diminished or destroyed, with physical destruction of structures being common, but overshadowing by taller or adjacent buildings, and glaring juxtapositions with modernist structures the other favourites. In the case of the Château Laurier addition proposed since 2016, the new structure is not only incongruous due to stylistic mismatch for the area, it also hides the north-western side of the Château Laurier viewed from Major’s Hill Park and the Rideau Canal. The hidden viewpoint on the historic building will be replaced with a boxy structure not unlike a matchbox or a giant external hard drive, more befitting of a suburban mall than the banks of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rideau Canal.
While such outrages are common in Canada, this case has captured the public’s attention due to its centrality next to Parliament Hill. The hotel owners, architects, and city officials together share the blame for failing to abort or rectify this preposterous project thus far. It is also symptomatic of larger trends worldwide. Architectural elites in Canada and elsewhere have entrenched the notion that construction styles must match the zeitgeist of the time as defined by architectural schools and ‘heavyweights’, as opposed to matching the neighbourhoods in which buildings are intended or human-sized dimensions. 21st century architecture, while extremely broad and diverse, often ends up as a combination of the functionalism of the 1950s and more cheerful materials, for example glass, metal or wood instead of heavy reliance on exposed concrete.
Newly built post-1945 architecture has the ability to appear continuously novel as shapes and materials change (hence the fact that new-style buildings are often supported by a non-negligible portion of the population and the majority of elite opinion) while at the same time ageing very poorly within a few decades in the public’s eye. Modern structures are acclaimed due to their novelty hence, not due to their beauty. When structures such as the boxy Château Laurier addition are built on empty plots along highways, there is little outcry as there is no surrounding character for the buildings to ruin. The fact that they are soulless, ahistorical clean boxes that do nothing to inspire the human soul is secondary if construction costs are low and the buildings work well. However, when juxtaposed with the grandeur and ambition of structures such as the Château Laurier itself, or the Gothic-style East Block across the Canal, the modernist addition appears as a vulgar desecration of one of the few remaining architectural jewels in Canada. We went from being a nation that aspires to live and work in dreamland, to one that has turned it back on beauty, particularly for larger buildings.
The clear way out of this mess is either for the addition to be abandoned outright, or for an architectural firm specialized in traditional styles to design an addition that matches, at least to a very large extent, the intent and aspiration of the Château Laurier and Parliament Hill. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to design cost-effective, faithful structures in historic styles, including additions on pre-existing buildings.
There are several arguments against this line of thought, the most common being that historic styles do not fit the zeitgeist of today, that using influences from previous eras is a form of architectural plagiarism, that the know-how for this type of construction does not exist any more, that botched attempts will look more like Disneyland than successful buildings, that they are not cost-effective, and that they are not up to code and therefore illegal. There is some merit to the claim that botched attempts at historicism can look ridiculous, but this is usually due to architects not trained in this craft being hired for the job.
There are proportions and rules that must be respected when attempting certain styles. The remaining concerns can be addressed one by one. There is no requirement for new buildings to fit an elite-determined zeitgeist of today, especially if what is conventionally thought of as the zeitgeist is depressing and monotonous, or simply jarring. No architectural creation emerges out of a vacuum, and hence any architecture whatsoever, is to an extent a form of imitation. There is nothing wrong with that. We learn and grow from exposure to influences.
The knowledge and craft for the creation of historical styles still exists, in Canada (for example buildings constructed or renovated in protected sites such as the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which follow historicist styles), the United States (for major public and private buildings and every-day residential stock), in Latin America (in the ecclesiastical field for example) and especially in Europe (in urban residential architecture and in the preservation of existing heritage). 21st century projects completed in historicist styles can be of equal or greater quality and originality than projects from the pre-1945 era. There is no reason for them to appear Disney-like if they are designed by professional architects formed in those traditions. Such structures can be cost-effective in the short term (much of historicism involves questions of proportions, rather than necessarily expensive mouldings), and even more cost-effective in the long-term, as buildings that people consider having character are more likely to be renovated and preserved instead of torn down within 50 years. This is also more environmentally friendly.
The final objection is that historicist buildings cannot be built because elements of their structures, especially internally, do not conform to modern building codes and city norms. This is true in certain cases, but it does not invalidate the entire concept. For example, modern fire codes require many elements that were not required at the time of the Château Laurier’s construction, for example maximum distances from rooms to emergency exits, or staircase width requirements. A competent architectural firm combining knowledge of stylistic requirements and engineering can adapt a design to these requirements without compromising the intent of the project. Furthermore, it may be the case that what the public is most concerned about is the external appearance of the building, rather than the interior. This could mean that an addition could be built with historicist masonry and roofing on the exterior and modern style on the interior if desired.
It is not too late to prevent the desecration of the Château Laurier. With good will and a change of mentality, the City of Ottawa, the hotel owners and experts can do the right thing for Canadians and future generations.