Three layers of regulatory protections could not prevent the approval of an incompatible addition to an iconic heritage site, the Château Laurier.
When the first design for a proposed addition to Ottawa’s iconic Château Laurier hotel was unveiled in the fall of 2016, the public outcry was immediate. Four versions and nearly three years later, both the design and the response to it remain essentially unchanged. A massive wave of public opinion and a broad consensus of expert opinion have spoken with one voice: the proposed addition is unsuitable.
Nevertheless, on July 10, Ottawa’s City Council voted to allow the addition, to cries of “Shame!” from the public gallery.
What is all the fuss about?
From the very beginning, this issue has always been about compatibility — or, more precisely, about the planned addition’s lack of compatibility with the venerable heritage building to which it is attached.
Compatibility may sound hopelessly subjective, but in fact there are coherent principles behind it and time-tested ways of achieving it. The new can simply reproduce the forms of the old, which is what happened when the Château was enlarged in 1927. Or the new can allude to the old in a more metaphorical way by echoing salient forms, patterns and other design characteristics in a modern addition. This is what the firm Diamond Schmitt did at the National Arts Centre in 2017. Or the new can eschew the forms of the old completely, but express its underlying ethos and values in a contemporary architectural language. This is what Arthur Erickson did at the Bank of Canada in 1974.
Ignoring all of these paths to compatibility is not really making an “addition” to the historic building at all — it’s just marking territory. And that’s what is happening at the Château Laurier.
The Château is picturesque, romantic and playful. Its towers, turrets and gables are an integral part of the sublime, rugged silhouette of Parliament and its surroundings. The planned addition is essentially a box: all straight lines, right angles and mathematical precision. It does not echo the older building’s forms, nor does it join in its romantic spirit.
Not even the addition’s architect, Peter Clewes, claims that the addition is compatible. In his appearance before city councillors in the summer of 2018, he argued instead that the addition was so restrained and had such a “gentle and soft touch” that it would be “almost invisible.” Quite apart from the sheer strangeness of this claim — I have never before heard an architect express the hope that his building would be invisible — it simply isn’t true. Buildings don’t disappear.
What will disappear is a series of iconic views of the Château Laurier: from Major’s Hill Park, from the Bytown Museum, from the river and from Gatineau. But it’s not just the Château that will be affected. Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal (itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Château form an ensemble, all situated on a dramatic landscape that these structures were carefully crafted to complement. This vista has been on our dollar bill and on our postage stamps. It is emblematic of the capital, and by extension the nation. The addition will draw a curtain across an integral part of one of the country’s most spectacular and revered architectural tableaux.
Given that the Château Laurier has the maximum amount of legislative protection possible for a heritage building in Canada, this outcome should have been impossible. How has the process failed? Let me count the ways.
First, there’s the design process. As Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is fond of pointing out, the Château Laurier is private property. But it is also a designated heritage building, abutting (and benefiting hugely from) a publicly owned park, canal and parliamentary buildings. It is a private building in which the public has a huge and legitimate stake. And yet what passed for “consultation” amounted to a parade of speakers, mostly affiliated with the building’s owner, explaining why they thought the design was brilliant. Design “revisions” turned out to be tweaks to a fundamentally flawed concept. A truly consultative process, undertaken in good faith, could have included a competition in which stakeholders were allowed to see and debate a wide range of designs before decisions were made. We wouldn’t have reached unanimity, but we could have had a public that was engaged, rather than enraged.
It was ultimately up to City Council to accept or reject the result. According to the Mayor, Council did not have the authority to dictate to private property owners what style or architect should be used. This ignores the fact that City Council had not only the authority but the duty to reject any addition deemed unsuitable to a heritage building. Although not a single councillor could find anything positive to say about the design, a majority voted to accept it. They genuinely seem not to know that they have a legal responsibility to enforce the Ontario Heritage Act.
The Ontario Heritage Act is, of course, provincial legislation. It assigns responsibility for designation to municipalities, but the Act ultimately falls under the authority of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Should the province now intervene in a municipal process? That could be argued both ways; we need to be careful what we wish for. But given the urgency of the situation and the Château’s unique importance as a heritage site, a case for provincial intervention could be made.
Federally, the Château comes under the mandate of two ministries: Canadian Heritage (through the National Capital Commission) and Environment and Climate Change (through Parks Canada). The NCC has been reluctant to get involved, in spite of the fact that in 2008 it commissioned a rigorous study outlining the principles that should be followed in the event of an expansion of the Château Laurier, and even though it has a committee (the Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Realty) whose job it is to advise on “design proposals affecting federal lands.” If the addition to the Château Laurier does not fit this description, it is hard to imagine what would.
Parks Canada oversees the National Historic Sites program. The Château is designated under the program, and many have wondered how such an unsympathetic addition could be allowed at a designated National Historic Site. The answer is as simple as it is shocking: designation comes with no legal protection whatsoever. Canada is the only G8 nation that has no legislation to protect its National Historic Sites. This is not a distinction to be proud of.
Three levels of government, three potential layers of protection, yet we have the green light for a design that almost everybody agrees is a mistake. The heritage community is reeling, and rightly so. Canada’s heritage regulations stand revealed as a tangle of procedural loopholes and toothless tigers.
If we can’t protect the Château Laurier, then what can we protect?
Peter Coffman is the supervisor of Carleton University's History and Theory of Architecture Program, and past president of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada.