The battle of the Château Laurier may, at long last, be over. For years now, some Ottawans have been attempting to stop an addition on the back of the 1912 hotel that is a national historic site – and, to some in the city, a place just this side of sacred. The debate has been both technical and tub-thumping.
It has also revealed just how people in the nation’s capital think about architecture and about their city. And that has not been pretty.
The opponents of the addition won, sort of. Last week, the local advocacy group Heritage Ottawa announced a settlement with the hotel’s owners, Larco; they had agreed to a new (sixth!) version of the design, and everyone will call off their lawyers. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has signed on.
The details (despite the heated rhetoric) are subtle. The existing hotel is roughly U-shaped. The gap in the U faces Major’s Hill Park and the Ottawa River. The main technical issue in this debate has been about where a new addition should go and what form it should take. The new version by the Toronto firm architectsAlliance extends the two arms of the U, with a single-storey event space in between. This allows the back end of the existing building to be seen.
“This is a victory from our point of view,” said Carolyn Quinn, a member of Heritage Ottawa’s committee on the Château. The non-profit group raised $150,000 in donations to support its fight against the previous version of the project – which would have closed up the back of the hotel’s U. In that respect, “We managed to get the owner to ditch what we hated,” she said. “What we have now is structures that emerge in a more complementary way that already exists.” (Full disclosure: I gave a lecture to the group in 2019 on an unrelated topic.)
This is all true; the changes to the form of the building, as well as increased use of the older building’s Indiana limestone and copper, link it conceptually to the fanciful 1912 building.
But the addition remains a modern building, with a rectilinear form, and facades designed with an irregular pattern of solids and voids – the characteristic work of architectsAlliance principal Peter Clewes.
So while Heritage Ottawa (a non-profit which effectively took over the file for the city) may be happy with this technical victory, it hardly appeases other critics of the project.
Many locals held a simplistic idea that new is bad, and old is good. This was expressed in many forms. A highbrow version came in an open letter last year from Margaret MacMillan and three other historians – published by Heritage Ottawa. They argued the hotel’s architecture “draws on history – the past of the chateaux of the Loire, light and Gallic and elegant.” The addition would “transform” the Château, and so it is “an attack on Canadians and their history.” The four worried that “a civic and national treasure will become a civic and national eyesore.”
This letter neither understands nor interrogates the real history of the building, which was confected to give 20th-century tourists a taste of ersatz royalty. These arguments would seem bizarre to a historian in Paris, or Madrid, or the European capitals to which (we are often told) Ottawa can compare itself.
In these places it is a given that new architecture can “transform” the older buildings it accompanies. New buildings express the ideas and the techniques of their time. This ideal is good enough for the Louvre, and the CaixaForum cultural centre in Madrid. It’s also good enough for a railway hotel.
But it doesn’t seem many Ottawans (aside from the heritage professionals) have absorbed this central lesson. Cities change. New architecture should not always defer; it can interject and respond. The Château addition is a polite compromise. It won’t do that.
Unfortunately, none of the other major buildings in contemporary Ottawa will do so either – the new public library and archives, the recently completed temporary homes of Parliament, the 2017 renovation to the National Arts Centre, which subverts the spirit of that important building. All could have gained from the intervention of citizens to make them more ambitious and beautiful. But in Ottawa, it seems beauty is history.
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