Phyllis Lambert to Mayor Jim Watson: Proposed Château Laurier Addition "Makes Mockery of the Ontario Heritage Act"

Architect Phyllis Lambert. Photo: New York Times via The Globe and Mail

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Originally published June 6, 2019


Architectural visionary Phyllis Lambert, widely considered one of the world's most influential figures in architecture, has written a second letter to Mayor Jim Watson expressing her concerns about the proposed addition to Ottawa's Château Laurier hotel.

Best known by many for her role in the appointment of modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building in New York City, Ms. Lambert worked as Director of Planning on the project (1954-1958), and subsequently acted as architectural consultant on the Mies-designed Toronto Dominion Bank (1962).   She also consulted on the new atrium for the National Bank of Canada in Ottawa to ensure it would respect the original design.

Ms. Lambert joins a growing chorus of experts who have voiced their strenuous opposition to the proposed Château Laurier addition.  In her letter, Ms. Lambert states that the proposed Château Laurier addition "makes mockery of the Ontario Heritage Act" and urbanistically and symbolically "destroys a major element of our national identity."

Ms. Lambert founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1979.  Among her many honours, Ms. Lambert is a Companion of the Order of Canada and recipient of the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize which recognizes exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design.

The text of Ms. Lambert's recent letter to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and committee members follows:

June 2, 2019

City of Ottawa
I10 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, ON K1P 1J1

Dear Committee Members,

I write to you with the greatest concern about the proposed addition to the Château Laurier hotel in our Capitol city. The proposed addition makes mockery of the Ontario Heritage Act that has designated the Chateau Laurier as a building of public importance and it has been recognized under Federal jurisdiction as a National Historic Site of Canada.

You will find attached my letter of a year ago to Mayor Watson regarding the Fourth iteration of the proposed building. In this, the Fifth iteration, the fundamental problem remains the same: urbanistically and symbolically it destroys a major element of our national identity. The long bar structure relentlessly covers the north face of the Château, obstructing the view of the picturesque historic structure from Parliament Hill. The intrusion of the mass also demolishes the significant relationship between the very fine neo-Gothic architecture of the Parliament buildings and of the Château-style hotel, which when built in 1912, established a distinct Canadian ‘national’ style.

Similarly, the proposed bar structure is a barrier that almost completely hides the view of the hotel from the greensward of Major’s Hill Park, and at the same time kills the view of this park from the rooms facing the greensward. Furthermore, from the Rideau Canal the addition offers an uncomfortable view of the Château’s west wing, obliterating the rest. Needless to say the proposed addition obliterates views from all rooms on the north side of the Château to Major’s Hill Park.

The present proposal has made certain improvements, but lowering the building one storey, and extending the structure northwards to enlarge the courtyard, does not essentially change conditions discussed above --- that is the creation of a barrier that separates and cuts off the magnificent 1912 Chateau building from the Park and the views it does the rooms of the Chateau to the Park so that practically all face the new structure. (Nor would I think this to be commercially desirable.) And at the same time it demolishes the very fine existing relationship to Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal.

The very first proposal to add to the Chateau had the virtue of creating two wings, adding to the east and west edges of the Chateau Laurier, and maintaining the open access to Major’s Hill Park. The objection was, I believe, the architectural language.

Additions to historic buildings, as I noted in my letter of June 20, 2018, may well be of contrasting architectural language, but they cannot act as masks allowing only unobstructed views of the original. Such additions must also be sympathetic in height, articulation, proportions, and refinement. The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada states:

Conserve the heritage value and character-defining elements when creating  any new additions to an historic place or any related new construction.   Make the new work physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to  and distinguishable from the historic place.

Members of the Committee, I ask that the design of the addition to the Chateau Laurier, if there is to be one, be completely revisited and include studies of all possibilities of siting any addition, and clearly define the issues involved. This is essential in order to enhance and not diminish the extraordinary heart of our National Capitol, of which the Chateau Laurier, Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park, the Rideau Canal, and the National War Memorial are major symbols of our national identity.

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis Lambert CC GOQ CAL LLD FRAiC
Founding Director Emeritus
Centre Canadien d’Architecture
Canadian Centre for Architecture



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