What is good architecture? How should we build our cities, and adapt what we’ve already built as we look to the future?
These are big questions. And after the Chateau Laurier debate it seems clear that Ottawa, as a city, and Canada, have no idea how to answer them.
That’s my main lesson from the long, chaotic debate over an addition to the famed Ottawa hotel, an issue that was resolved on Thursday by a city council vote. The addition is most likely going ahead.
But the discussion was remarkably muddled. It’s been roughly three years since Larco Investments brought forward a design by architectsAlliance and ERA Architects for a new wing on the hotel. In all that time, everybody has had their say about the architecture: Ottawa’s city council, its Urban Design Review Panel and, in various forums, Ottawans.
The design led by architectsAlliance has evolved dramatically under this scrutiny; it’s gone through five iterations, as the architects worked to respond to the direction of various professionals.
The final result is good. It’s not radical, and it’s not magnificent; few creative works are magnificent when they’ve been designed by committee. Peter Clewes and his team at architectsAlliance have delivered a long, low, flat-roofed building that will link the hotel to Major’s Hill Park, facing that park with a facade of Indiana limestone (like the Chateau), copper (like the Chateau) and dark glass. It is respectful, “subordinate,” as planning guidelines required it to be.
And yet Ottawa is in an uproar. Why?
It depends who you ask. There is zero consensus about what an addition to the building should look like. In fact, there is a clear line between popular views and those expressed by people who have spent some time thinking about architecture.
First, the highbrow argument. Ottawans from the fields of architecture and heritage have asked for the building to be more respectful of the original Chateau, echoing its irregular and ornate composition. Barry Padolsky, the Ottawa architect who often speaks out on local issues, called Clewes’s design “an architectural box, aptly named the ‘radiator’ that has ‘horrified many Canadians.’ ”
Then, uncomfortably close, the lowbrow. The most popular responses are 1) that the Chateau shouldn’t be touched at all, or 2) that any new addition should look precisely like what’s already there.
This is not practical. It would be near impossible to reproduce the craftsmanship of a century ago. But why would you want to do that? The Chateau is beloved by Ottawans, and it has a quasi-governmental importance. But its architecture was conceived by the Grand Trunk Railroad as a sales tool, copying their competitors’ take on 16th-century French castles. It is a Gilded Age commercial confection. It is not Parliament, and it is not a holy site, either.
Mr. Clewes’s design – or rather, designs – have been progressively supported by the city’s planning professionals and always shredded by the public. The dominant language (as Mr. Padolsky put it) is that this is a “box.” And therefore bad. “Canada is experiencing modern conforming pop-up boxes everywhere,” wrote former Prime Minister’s Office staffer Penny Collenette.
That is, to be frank, shockingly ill informed. The idea that any building with a flat roof is “modern,” or that such buildings are indistinguishable, does not survive a moment of consideration. To hear such arguments coming from highly intelligent, highly educated people doesn’t bode well for architecture in Canada.
So how can we do better? Start by teaching architecture in our schools. This most public of arts requires, like any other art, some background in order to understand it. Materials, proportions, plan, section, massing; there’s a language here.
And the country – government in particular – should aim high. In 1959, prime minister John Diefenbaker spoke to an assembly of the country’s architects, asking them to play a part in Canada’s centennial rebuilding. Both architects and politicians, he said, must “be able to see and understand what can be done in the future, and then to lay those plans which make possible the realities of tomorrow."
The result was bold, forward-looking architecture like the National Arts Centre, architecture that strived to explore the nature of contemporary life and redefine what it is to be Canadian. It’s time to do that again. Not just by exploring style, but about design responses to the climate crisis, and to public buildings that serve our social goals. Looking backward – piously and ahistorically – won’t help.
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