The following article appeared in the "Athena Cultural Crusader" section of the August 8 issue of COUNTRY LIFE, a weekly U.K. magazine with a focus on arts, travel and architecture.
The magnificent neo-Gothic Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa are on a scale to match our own at Westminster and, likewise, form part of a view that enjoys immediate national recognition. In this case, it’s the prospect across the River Ottawa, where the parliament buildings rise above cliffs in juxtaposition to Château Laurier, a spectacular hotel opened in 1912. The view of the two together across the river even appeared for a period on the Canadian dollar bill.
By a strange coincidence, just as insensitive development along the River Thames threatens the setting of the Palace of Westminster, so does development in Ottawa threaten that of the Canadian Parliament. In the case of Ottawa, Athena hopes that the Athena Cultural Crusader authorities can learn from London’s mistakes and act before irreparable damage is done.
Château Laurier was one of the most ambitious railway hotels of the early 20th century. It was commissioned by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway immediately opposite its station in the capital and begun to designs by the New York architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. It takes the form of a château on the Loire, with a towering roofline enlivened by dormer windows and pinnacles.
Ottawa Council is washing its hands of an embarassing problem
In December 2016, plans for a major addition to it in the form of a large, rectilinear block on the site of a garage (now demolished) were made public. At the time, the proposals generated a public outcry. They were widely judged to compromise the view and made no reference to the hotel’s existing architecture or its Gothic character.
This year, those plans came back with changes that claimed to answer these criticisms. However, they did nothing substantive to alter the fundamental problem with the design: that it’s a box designed with complete indifference to its architectural context and visually sensitive location.
Certainly, the city planning committee agreed that the new design was not up to scratch when it recently met on June 26. Rather than reject it, however, it took the very unusual step of approving it on condition that it was made ‘more compatible’ with the Château Laurier. Then, almost immediately, the elected city council endorsed that bizarre decision.
By so doing, the city council has accepted the revised design sight-unseen. It has also delegated its responsibility for the arbitration of future proposals to the planning committee and dodged the bullet of public opposition. In short, it’s washing its hands of an embarrassing problem to the long-term detriment of Ottawa.
Such dereliction of civic duty would seem more reprehensible if London had not achieved something even more remarkable: an entire district of high-rise residential building as the Thames backdrop to Parliament. New towers continue to rise, but Athena is still waiting for even one new design of distinction.