GIBBONS: Council must show some courage on Château Laurier file

Rendering: Larco Investments

Monday, July 8, 2019


It’s been called everything from an overgrown storage container to an homage to Soviet-style brutalism (thank you, Monte Solberg.) Whatever your preference, there’s no disputing the fifth and apparently final rendition of a proposed addition to the iconic Château Laurier Hotel has all the architectural charm of a mid-‘50s steam heating plant and about as many fans as a concrete recycling facility.

A visitor to this city from almost any other country in the world would stand aghast at the prospect of civic leaders even contemplating approving a monstrosity of this magnitude to deface a national historic gem like the Château Laurier in the heart of the nation’s capital and at the foot of a world heritage site, the Rideau Canal. Come to think of it, just about everybody in this town shares that viewpoint.

And yet here we are, barely 48 hours from what might be one last chance to reverse a stupid and grossly mishandled council decision from last year and stop a perilous slide into architectural mediocrity. This assumes the more timorous and risk-averse members of council can screw up sufficient courage to admit a mistake, accept the legal risk of changing their mind, and thereby avoid making an even bigger mistake by letting the approval stand.

Think about it: Would France even contemplate an addition like this to the Louvre? Sacré bleu!

Do you think French authorities would similarly succumb to such an unoriginal and mundane architectural idea to reconstruct the fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral? Mais non!

Would the Brits dare attach such a bland a concrete box to Windsor Castle or the Tower of London? Not bloody likely, mate!

In fact, exactly 25 years ago Prince Charles launched his own assault on the stupidity of modernist architecture by attacking a proposed addition to London’s iconic National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”

So, with that as inspiration, who on council will mount the ramparts in the same manner as our future king to challenge this ridiculously strict modernist architectural orthodoxy and knock down this future Eyesore on the Rideau before it’s ever built?

We will know the answer on Wednesday when city council considers a motion by Coun. Mathieu Fleury to reverse a confusing and ridiculously mishandled approval that was granted to the Château Laurier’s current owners last year by the previous council.

Now, I’m sure the proprietors of the iconic hotel have their own best interests in mind and nobody else’s when they issued a stern warning last week of legal ramifications if the earlier approval were to be reversed, a warning sure to send some councillors under their desks and into the fetal position.

We are looking for heartier souls on Wednesday.

Council needs to own up to its own mistakes by reversing the design approval, even if it means incurring legal liabilities. It’s simply unconscionable to let a bad decision stand.

My fear is that too many councillors will quiver at the prospect of being taken to court by a developer, having been swayed by overly friendly supporters in the development community who don’t like seeing politicians interfere in developers’ business plans.

Last week, Coun. Shawn Menard complained that developers control city hall. If councillors refuse to reverse approval for the Château extension, I’m tempted to suggest he is right.

Mayor Jim Watson needs to take the bull by the horns on this one, even if it means the city is forced to incur legal costs in doing so. There are times when city officials need to stand in the right side of history and this is one of them.

Otherwise, the Château Laurier extension will rise to become a blot on the landscape of this city, an extension more worthy of Chernobyl than Ottawa.

And it will cast a long shadow over successful development projects like Lansdowne, LRT and eventually LeBreton Flats. Does Watson really want this monstrosity to cloud such an otherwise sterling legacy on development?

Hopefully not.

Gibbons is a veteran journalist and former publisher of the Ottawa Sun.



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