Coffman: New Château Laurier design is evidence of a system that failed

Larco Investments and Heritage Ottawa hammered out a compromise on the design of the Château Laurier addition, ending Heritage Ottawa’s appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Image supplied by Larco.

Monday, August 17, 2020

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Peter Coffman

After nearly four years of resistance, re-design, protest and even legal action, we now have a proposal for the addition to the Château Laurier that has met Heritage Ottawa’s approval. Is it better than what city council approved last summer? Yes. Is it a truly outstanding design that will be a jewel in the crown of the parliamentary precinct? No. Is it the best outcome possible given our inadequate heritage processes? Probably.

Let’s look at those questions one at a time.

We’ve only seen two renderings of the design, so there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. But it does appear to be a significant improvement. The design approved by council is a horizontal block that sits across the opening to the courtyard like a giant deadbolt. The twin pavilions lift the deadbolt and re-open the door between the park and the Château. Their asymmetrical massing offers some echo of the picturesque quality of the older building. This is all good, as is the more abundant limestone and strong horizontal divisions, which connect the new to the old without compromising the addition’s distinctiveness.

So, is this what real excellence looks like? No, it’s not. The most successful additions to historic buildings I’ve seen start by understanding the old building and imagining what its present-day architectural descendants might look like. It’s a method that has stood the test of time. Christopher Wren did this at Oxford’s Tom Tower in 1681, as did Arthur Erickson at Ottawa’s Bank of Canada almost exactly 300 years later. Their designs look less like “additions” and more like offshoots that grew naturally from the original at a later date. From the start, the Château Laurier addition was conceived as an independent entity, retrofitted with as many compatible features as the design could manage. That works to a point, but will never result in excellence.

Is that the best result that our heritage protection process can deliver? Actually, even that conclusion is too generous. Our official process ended with city council’s approval of a design so outstandingly bad that public and expert opinion were united in opposition. It took hundreds of people, donating thousands of dollars, plus legal action from Heritage Ottawa, to nudge the design toward something minimally acceptable.

This is for a building that enjoys the maximum heritage protection that our laws provide. The outcome is evidence of a system that failed, not one that works.

We should give credit where credit is due. Without the dogged determination and tireless efforts of a handful of volunteers at Heritage Ottawa, the council-approved design would already be under construction (full disclosure: I am on the board of Heritage Ottawa, but was not part of the process that reached this agreement). And building owner Larco, faced with a PR disaster that must have surpassed its worst nightmares, commissioned one new design after another, some with substantive changes, apparently doing its best to follow directives given by city staff.

We need to ask, though, how this process went so wildly off the rails. How did council come to approve a design that was almost universally panned? How was Larco, having produced a first design that was widely criticized, allowed to veer wildly off in all design directions for years, before ending up with a solution that was really just an improved version of that first design? Nothing in this process suggests the city ever had a coherent vision of what was or was not appropriate, never mind a rudder to steer us there.

Some people are very enthusiastic about this design, which is great news. Others clearly loathe it, which is inevitable. For many in between, it is simply the least bad solution possible under the circumstances. Must we always aim so low?

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 Member of Heritage Ottawa's Board of Directors.