Ottawa’s iconic Château Laurier held hostage by developers and architects

A detail view of the proposed Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa looking south west. Rendering: architectsAlliance

Thursday, June 6, 2019

TORONTO STAR, By Penny Collenette

How do you protect what is perceived to be a public heritage space when it is privately owned? This very contentious issue is facing Ottawa’s City Council.

In addition to climate chaos of floods and tornadoes, the council and the people of Ottawa are embroiled in a volatile standoff with the Toronto firm of architectsAlliance, which designed a seven-floor modernist box as an addition to the beloved and historic Chateau Laurier Hotel at the request of the owner of the hotel, Larco Investments.

Capital Hotel L.P., a subsidiary of Larco, describes itself as hospitality leaders. They purchased the 429-room Chateau in 2013.

In Toronto, Larco also owns the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville, the Toronto Marriott City Centre and the Sheraton Toronto Airport Hotel.

Variously described as a radiator, a toaster and a heating plant, the 147-room addition, replacing a dilapidated parking garage, has been widely panned.

Some people could visualize it as a building in another space, but not within the storied Parliamentary precinct of turrets, towers, buttresses and gargoyles and not adjacent to the Rideau Canal, designated as a UNESCO World heritage site in 2007.

The legendary hotel also abuts the popular Major’s Hill Park, home to Canada Day events and the Festival Franco-Ontarien. In a federation of English and French, it is surely worthwhile and symbolic to preserve the French elements of the Chateau, especially in the nation’s capital.

For three years, the debate has continued through several iterations, one municipal election, and two different city councils. The former city council unaccountably left the planning details to city staff.

So far, 2,400 formal complaints have been lodged, many associations are opposed and even Mayor Jim Watson, while acknowledging some alterations in the design, has said that the company is “tone deaf” to the criticisms.

Ottawa citizens realize they have dual citizenship — citizens of a vibrant local community and citizens of the nation’s capital. We enjoy not only the glittering jewel of the National Gallery of Canada, but also Ottawa’s own new, modern, art gallery.

We patronize small theatres as well as the recently renovated National Arts Centre designed by the Toronto firm of Diamond Schmitt. Its stunning glass atrium, featuring a Kipnes Lantern, is the signature feature of the NAC’s architectural rejuvenation of a Brutalist style building into an open, welcoming space.

And Ottawa is no stranger to heritage buildings undergoing renovations and rehabilitation. Currently, the gothic style House of Commons is shuttered for 10 years in an estimated $3 billion preservation project. Parts of the buildings are shrouded; other parts are awash in scaffolding.

Even now, the buildings and its surrounding space still remain as the undisputed centre of Ottawa, while the Chateau, right next door, has been described by historian Kevin Holland as the “heart of Ottawa since it was built in 1912.”

In the last few days, the public outcry has boiled over with journalists, artists and citizens pushing alarm buttons. City councillors, feeling the heat, lobbed tough questions to the architects and their consultants at a recent subcommittee hearing.

However, instead of collaboration, their attitude was one of defiance. “This is not something we’re interested in” said one. Dennis Jacobs, a planning consultant was equally blunt. “This is not a court of public opinion. This is a municipal decision.”

He’s wrong. The court of public opinion has something to say and they are saying it loudly. Surely the owners, if not the architects, want to ensure a good corporate reputation, not to mention sensitivity to Canadian culture.

Canadian cities are experiencing modern conforming pop up boxes everywhere. It’s time to draw the line in Ottawa as has been done with the renovation of Toronto’s Union Station, another iconic landmark.

When looking at the skyline Parliament buildings and the Chateau, it is easy to envisage political secrets, historical mysteries and national debates for the future. These intangible sentiments are just something which cannot be contained in a box, no matter how opulent.

Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien. She is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.