There comes a moment in some of our lives when a dear friend will succumb to the siren song of Dr. Wrinkle-Free, the cosmetic surgeon. That friend will present herself at the door, and you can either swallow your horror and acknowledge this new wax person, or you can shriek, “My God, Marjorie, what have you done to your face?”
I think all of Ottawa had a collective “My God, Marjorie” moment when the proposed addition to the Château Laurier hotel was unveiled this week. The boxy refurbishment was less a subtle nip-and-tuck than a jarring mash-up, as if they’d stuck a nose ring on the Mona Lisa (it may be generous to compare the hotel to the Mona Lisa, but Ottawa – how to put this gently – does not exactly bristle with landmark architecture.)
The criticism of the planned extension was quick and, for Ottawa, brutal. “Is this a joke?” was a common reaction online, along with the suggestion that the new addition, designed by Toronto architect Peter Clewes, had been inspired by the online game Minecraft. The hotel’s copper roof and Indiana limestone are reflected in the proposed design, but not its grandeur or whimsy; the whole effect is a bit Condoland 2016. Ottawa’s mayor, Jim Watson, suggested on Twitter that all parties involved “go back to the drawing board.”
You can bet there will be drawing boards, and public consultations with “stakeholders” – i.e., meetings with annoyed citizens drinking rancid coffee from paper cups – and eventually some kind of compromise will be met that services the twin gods of commerce and good taste. Every city that has the luck to grow and flourish experiences these tensions.
This is even more true in a country that’s so young it doesn’t really possess a unified architectural vernacular, and jealously guards the bits we’ve borrowed from other cultures. In Toronto, Daniel Libeskind’s spiked glass extension to the Royal Ontario Museum still causes people to shake with rage. (I personally love its punky exuberance, but I’m in the minority.) Only 20 years ago, Moshe Safdie’s Vancouver Public Library, an over-the-top wink at a Roman colosseum that won a public popularity contest, divided the hoi polloi and the architecture critics. The public loved it; critics not so much.
Buildings, and their additions, can slowly warm even the most hostile hearts: It’s hard to remember that many of the places we most treasure, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York to I.M. Pei’s pyramid addition to the Louvre, were initially held in contempt. I’m not saying that’s the case with the box they’re trying to fix on the side of this hotel, only that architecture is long, and outrage is short.
The Château Laurier is, like other dowagers needing a touch-up, the victim of its own success. Its owners, Larco Investments, want to expand the hotel by 200 rooms, adding suites and new underground parking. There’s no doubt the old girl needs to shake the Labrador hair off her skirts, but you don’t want to turn her into a Kardashian overnight. There’s only so much Ottawa’s heart can take.
The Globe wrote approvingly about the magnificence of the Château Laurier when it opened on June 2, 1912, at a cost of $2-million: “The latest word in palace hotels on this continent in point of chaste and impressive architecture, in point of beauty of interior decorations, and in point of completeness of arrangements for the comfort and convenience of guests was spoken last night. …” The Château Laurier, with its palm-room, its writing-corridor and its ladies’ parlours, “has admirably succeeded in getting away from the conventional hotel-like and un-homelike stiffness of most modern hotels.”
That’s a lot of history and public affection to be up against. A beloved building, even one that you pass a hundred times a month and rarely give a second thought, is like the face of that friend you take for granted until it’s gone, or irrevocably changed. Then your shared story has been rewritten, and history lost, and no one even asks permission. You can see why people fume.
Not too long ago I stood in a crowded room to hear public consultations about the housing development that would replace Honest Ed’s, which is a giant, gaudy, discombobulating Toronto discount store that people love more in theory than in practice. I can pretty much guarantee that none of the people in that room shopped at Honest Ed’s, but you would think that their children were being sold for meat, they were so incensed. (More people should shop there, because it is the bazaar of the bizarre, and cheap to boot. Last week I noticed a silver casket for sale, under a hand-painted sign that read, “No Exit.” This is not the sort of thing you find at Holt Renfrew.)
Even if they didn’t shop at Honest Ed’s, the people in that room felt a stake in the way the city was preserved, in how it looks, in the story it tells about itself. It’s the same way that people in Ottawa must feel about the Château Laurier. How can you say goodbye to the face of an old friend?Report Typo/Error