Opinion: Boxes all checked? Here’s why the proposed Château Laurier addition falls short

This is a view from Major's Hill Park onto the latest proposal for an addition to the Château Laurier. Drawing: Peter Clewes architectsAlliance

The publicity shy Lalji family of Vancouver, the owners of Larco Corporation, wishes to add 171 “long-stay” rooms to one of their properties, the venerable Château Laurier, a National Historic Site of Canada.

Over a year ago, the first public showing of a planned addition sparked an uproar and national media attention because of its poor design and lack of relationship with the original hotel.

The company went back to the drawing board and has recently produced another design. This time Peter Clewes’ architectsAlliance of Toronto, has created a shorter, and wider, decorated box that intends to serve as an apartment block. It too misses the mark.

Every building has an inherent identity and logic. It is a product of its time and its space. It can counter cultural forces (the avant-garde) or conform to its context.

In the modern era, architecture has often expressed its own meaning, divorced of relationships to environments. We’ve had many curtain walls built in cold climates, such as Place de Ville on Laurier Street in Ottawa would be an example. We’ve had modern objects in the landscape, recall the now demolished Sir John Carling Building, or imagine the early Carleton University campus or the former CBC headquarters on Bronson Avenue.

We’ve glorified the men who have created these works, even if they functionally failed in a few generations. The subsequent post-modern response to these efforts was sometimes a return to the past, but with a touch of irony. But these references were often too difficult to understand.

I have studied and appreciated Canadian modernism throughout my career, often trying to protect and preserve these places in face of owners who hoped to obliterate the recent past.

Despite the efforts of those who wished to remove these buildings, the supposedly failed modernism of the mid-20th century is alive and well, but this time cloaked in mock deference. Neo-modern and pseudo-sustainable architecture is today’s eye-candy.

Clewes, who sharpened his pencils under Arthur Erickson, has a direct connection to the artist-architect of the modern era. His work extends to some good design on historic buildings. An example is the Canadian Chancery Expansion in The Hague, Netherlands, 2008, in which he used the same glass extension corridor we see being proposed for the Château Laurier design.

But his work on the Château has caused him challenges, perhaps because his signature works are in glass, more glass and even a little more glass.

The proposed addition to the Château Laurier — what Clewes has called an inward-looking building — has none of the qualities Ottawans (and by extension visitors from across Canada and around the world) imagine in such a unique space.

The site is surrounded by Major’s Hill Park (a 19th-century urban park), the Rideau Canal (an 1820s engineering marvel), a complex of three exceptional neo-Gothic parliament buildings, an escarpment, the powerful Ottawa River and bold buildings on all sides (Beaux-Arts, Tudor Revival, Collegiate Gothic, Commercial Italianate and late modern regionalist Brutalism).

His office-like modernist box, suitable in Centretown perhaps, should not be placed within such a truly inspiring landscape.

Architecture has many languages, sometimes honest and frank, sometimes subtle and self-serving. Additions can come in many forms: insertions, transformations, juxtapositions, integrations, wraps. But the proposed addition to the Chateau Laurier has been a disappointment from the beginning, mostly due to the lack of transparency and an impoverished architectural language – think a generic globalized design.

An open competition and broader stakeholder discussions could have helped, but that has longed passed. We now have a program that addresses the client and ignores its environment. The design is not making place, instead it is creating a generic glass box that could be built anywhere.

The Château Laurier is a romantic leisure hotel and it has been gradually and sensitively enlarged throughout the 20th century. The issue it confronts today is a long-standing one: how to balance contemporary form-making with historical clarity? How do we balance new with the old and not be slavish copyists?

The legendary Italian architect, Carlo Scarpa, said:

“The problem of historical materials, which we can never ignore but can’t imitate directly either…” He was conscious of not reproducing the old. “Stupid imitations of that sort always look mean,” he said.

There is an overlooked ‘addition’ to the Château that is worth recalling.

In 1992, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography by Michael Lundholm, was unveiled at 1 Wellington. Architecturally, it related well to the Château. It was contextual, subordinate and complimentary. Yet it is not mentioned in recent discussions on the proposed new addition. This former museum now serves as meeting rooms for the Canadian Senate. Is it a coincidence that the Senate will have its chambers, its breakout rooms, and possibly its member’s lodgings all conveniently located within walking distance in the Government Conference Centre?

So why is this decorated box the preferred solution for the owners of the Chateau Laurier? Is it because it will increase their wealth at the expense of civic responsibility?

Good art should engage and challenge the viewer. We need an honest expression of the form as a symbol itself. We also need an intelligent exploration of the Château Laurier’s meaning – in all its manifestations and not simply its materiality and function. Whether as luxury hotel, Chateauesque expression, a symbol of Canada’s railway age, or as a sophisticated brand architecture, the proposed addition has only touched the surface of the deeper meanings of the place.

If the City of Ottawa agrees to the current design, or even a pruning of the proposed design, we will retain our lacklustre architectural image of recent decades. As the past president of Heritage Ottawa, Leslie Maitland, has asked: “Imagine a glass box on the Château Frontenac?” Or, imagine a glass addition to the Banff Springs Hotel? In 10 years, we will likely be bemoaning the curtain wall along the edge of Major’s Hill Park, looking up, trying to see the building’s silhouette and only seeing a senator or a diplomat looking down at us. At least they will enjoy the best views of the fireworks on Canada Day.

Andrew Waldron is an architectural historian and author of Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guidebook to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region. He is an adjunct professor in the History and Theory of Architecture program at Carleton University and was a longtime employee at Parks Canada.

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