City staff has decreed that the latest design for an addition to the Château Laurier meets the standard of compatibility with the historic hotel imposed by city council last summer. They are supported in this by heritage consultants ERA Architects, whose report — this cannot be stressed enough — was paid for by the very people proposing the addition. The reality is that the design is still lightyears away from genuine compatibility, because it fails to understand how compatibility is achieved.
There are two ways for an addition to harmonize with a historic building. It can, of course, simply use the style — with a little or a lot of interpretive license — of the existing building. Most modern architects would rather chew on a pack of thumbtacks than design in a historical style, but this solution actually has a long and honourable pedigree.
It’s what several architects in the ninth and 10th centuries did when adding to the Great Mosque of Córdoba. It’s what Sir Christopher Wren did when building the Tom Tower at Oxford in the 17th century, and what his student Nicholas Hawksmoor did the following century when designing All Souls College next to an existing Gothic chapel. It was the approach taken for additions made to the Château Laurier in the 20th century.
If an architect — or client — doesn’t want to use a historical style, there is still another way to harmonize with a historic building. Every architectural style has both physical features and an underlying ethos — what we could compare to a body and a soul. If you don’t want to copy the “body,” you can emulate the “soul.” That’s what Arthur Erickson did in his addition to the Bank of Canada in the 1970s. Rather than copying the Classical features of the original building, he embraced the Classical values of symmetry, balance, restraint and rationality, and expressed them in a modern architectural language.
The Château’s “body” includes features like turrets, towers, gables, a-symmetry, and stonework. Its ethos or “soul” is one of romance, luxury, opulence, fantasy and wonder. It is an invitation to dream. That’s why the Château Laurier has always paired so magnificently with Parliament Hill. One is Gothic and the other “Château Style,” but they share a romantic, picturesque sensibility.
The owners of the Château Laurier and their architect ruled out the use of the hotel’s historical style out of hand. Unfortunately, they also ignored the ethos of that style. In place of romance and wonder, we have angularity and mathematical precision. The Château is fire, the addition water. There is simply no common ground.
The only option left to the architect is to try to retrofit compatibility onto a fundamentally incompatible design by tweaking superficial features and hoping that the icing will, eventually, conceal the flaws of the cake.
That approach simply doesn’t work, and Ottawans have intuitively grasped this fact since the very first version of the Château’s extension was unveiled. Compatibility only happens if it’s a fundamental guiding principle of a design. It can’t be an add-on or afterthought.
It’s not impossible for a Château Style hotel to receive a sensitive and compatible addition. In the past, this has happened at the Château Lake Louise, the Château Frontenac and the Château Laurier itself. There was an exception – the Hotel MacDonald, in Edmonton, received a modern box addition in 1953. Utterly unloved, it quickly became known as “the box the Mac came in.” The addition was unceremoniously demolished in 1986, and is missed by no one. That may now be the best fate the Château Laurier can hope for.
Peter Coffman is the supervisor of Carleton University’s history and theory of architecture program, past president of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, and a member of the Board of Heritage Ottawa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
CLICK HERE to view a talk delivered by Peter Coffman entitled Building on the Past: Making New Additions to Old Buildings.