Ottawa’s Château Laurier debate: Modern design vs. cultural identity

AACI | Vice President, The Regional Group of Companies Inc.
  • Jul. 24, 2019
IMAGE: John Clark of Ottawa's Regional Group of Companies.

John Clark of Ottawa’s Regional Group of Companies.

In 1984, the Prince of Wales famously stunned his audience at a swank affair to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects when he denounced modern architecture . . . and architects.

His attack described modern design and proposed additions to London’s historic buildings as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

He went on to say:

“For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country. Perhaps, when you think about it, it is hardly surprising as architects tend to have been trained to design buildings from scratch – to tear down and rebuild.

Except in Interior Design courses students are not taught to rehabilitate, nor do they ever meet the ultimate users of buildings in their training – indeed, they can often go through their whole career without doing so.

Consequently, a large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants.”

Just as relevant today . . . if not more so

Why is this 35-year-old speech headlining today’s column? For those of you who don’t know, I live in Ottawa, a short distance from Parliament Hill with its glorious Gothic Revival architectural style . . . and the adjacent Fairmont Château Laurier hotel.

If you have been following the news, it has been a quite lively and divisive time in Ottawa. The current owner of the Château Laurier has gone back to the drawing board four times over the past three years to redesign a “modern” addition to the iconic hotel that has met with unprecedented public backlash.

IMAGE: An addition to be built onto the back of Ottawa's historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier has created intense controversy. (Courtesy Larco Investments)

An addition to be built onto the back of Ottawa’s historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier has created intense controversy. (Courtesy Larco Investments)

The final showdown came earlier this month, when city council voted in favour of allowing the owner to proceed as planned with the latest design iteration for the addition.

(Check out this CBC story for a recap of the debate surrounding the addition – you be the judge.)

Plenty of commentators have talked about how the process that originally gave heritage approval for such a design to be added to a national historic site represents a failure of municipal government and reveals issues with the function of city hall that go back to the city’s amalgamation 20 years ago.

The process has been flawed.

These sort of “100-year” decisions transcend the wishes of the current owner. I also find it discouraging that we haven’t had anyone of stature take a stand and say this is just a terrible mistake.

Leadership from higher levels is necessary: From the province as overseer of municipal government; from the National Capital Commission as overseer of Canada’s capital; and from the federal government, if those below won’t recognize the magnitude of the error with the current path.

Ingrained in our cultural identity

Canada has had an architectural policy, generally unofficial, that saw the use of a “château” style of architecture as an intentional plan for both public and private buildings to reflect the northernness of Canada.

This is in specific contrast to the Greco-Roman style seen in structures like the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

It can be argued this distinct Canadian style began with the Château Laurier.

The hotel, completed in 1912, was the first in a series of hotels constructed by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company (forerunner of CN) to encourage tourists to travel its transcontinental routes.

It was meant to harmonize with the Union Station already standing across the street. As other railway hotels were built in this château style, it quickly evolved as a distinctly Canadian architectural type.

With the reconstruction of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block after the fire of 1916, through to the 1950s, the federal government required that all federal structures in Ottawa conform in some way to the Château Laurier’s gothic design.

In fact, when the Supreme Court of Canada building was conceived in the 1930s, then-Prime Minister Mackenzie King saw the drawings and asked, “where is the roof?” Voilà, a copper-sheathed château-style roof appeared on the design.

Times change, but who we are doesn’t

Architectural styles do need to evolve over time. However, we also have an obligation to protect ourselves and our public images. Countries and peoples do identify themselves in part through their architecture.

While property rights matter, heritage preservation matters to the community and national treasures matter to our national identity.

The problem with the design proposed for this addition is that it completely strays from our château design history and does not reflect the northernness of who we are.

Back to the drawing board is the best next step for everyone.


To discuss this or any valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at [email protected]. I am always interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.

John Clark is Vice President with The Regional Group of Companies Inc. He has more than 33 years of experience in the real estate appraisal field, is a fully accredited…

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John Clark is Vice President with The Regional Group of Companies Inc. He has more than 33 years of experience in the real estate appraisal field, is a fully accredited…

Read more

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