Ottawa artist offers a look at what the Château Laurier addition could be

Andrew King says he spent about three hours coming up with this design for the addition to the Château Laurier. Courtesy Andrew King

They say the artists point the way forward. The city of Ottawa certainly seems to need some direction when it comes to the much-maligned addition to the venerable Château Laurier hotel. The latest of five frustrating proposals from the architects doing the work for Larco Investments has been compared to “a computer heat sink or an air conditioner” by one commentator. In the midst of all this Ottawa area artist Andrew King, who has a background as a designer, and a passion for the many different historic corners of the city, has offered up an alternative design to show what could be done just as city council prepares to decide the future of the addition. Here’s why he has done it.

Q. The Château Laurier has now had five different versions for an addition at the back facing Major’s Hill Park. None have satisfied the public. Why do you think that is the case?

A: It just goes to show the emotional attachment this city has for our beloved Château Laurier. I think it means so much more than just a building to the citizens of the capital region. It represents the history, an enduring stand through the test of time and our harsh winters, and it also represents a bit of magic for Ottawa, it’s landmark on the downtown skyline, and we are proud of it. The new box addition proposed represents none of that. The solid natural stone and copper bring a sense of grandeur and stability, something a glass box does not.

The elements of Andrew King’s proposal for the Château Laurier.

Q. In your perspective as an artist keenly interested in Ottawa, its history and its cityscape, you have proposed an alternative? Why?

A. I was just frustrated to see another Toronto-esque condo box being grafted onto the Château Laurier. The building, and the residents, deserve something better that’s more in tune with the general mindset of the city. We have lost so many grand old amazing buildings, the Carnegie Library, the old Capitol Theatre, and an entire neighbourhood of LeBreton Flats to the wrecking ball for some “new vision” that fails to come close to what was there before. Ottawa over time has crafted a unique, almost fairy tale look to our city, which is important because, let’s face it, what goes on inside these buildings isn’t very glamourous. At least the outside of them is creative, imaginative and evokes a sense of pride in every Canadian. I just wanted to try my hand at doing something that represents more. It’s not perfect by any means, but I needed to get it out of my system.

Q. Can you walk me through your idea? 

A.  The idea was born out of examining the Château Laurier and why it is so special. It is a gorgeous asymmetric design first of all, and in the design world we know that asymmetry is often used to create visual tension, which evokes the viewer to take great interest in its form. Asymmetry grabs attention. The Château is a combination of different angled roof shapes, corner turrets, basically a hodge-podge of triangular design elements, yet the whole thing is beautiful to look at, something a symmetrical box is not.

Next, it uses stone and copper almost exclusively, in tune with the rest of Ottawa’s downtown buildings. Windows are in parts of two, in a vertical line which creates a visual vertical element. There are also strong horizontal elements, with “layers” stacked on top of one another like a layer cake. I just took all those elements and made my own more updated version with modern turrets, an arched walkway to break up the monolithic form, and other details to harmonize with the original.

Q. Does the city need to develop a vision for the preservation and enhancement of its landmarks? Or does it do enough now?

A. The city’s heritage committee does an excellent job. I think the responsibility lies with the property owners and developers to adhere to their review instead of always appealing it to higher levels to get their designs pushed through. They need to show some compassion when they so radically adjust our city all the time. It should not be all about their benefit, which is profit.

Why the Château Laurier is so unique. Courtesy Andrew King

Q. Why do you feel this way?

A. A box is simple, cost effective to construct and is the most efficient container for holding the most volume of product, in this case, hotel guests, which calculates into profit for the corporate owners of the building. But let’s take away corporate profit and replace it with something that the original Château Laurier has: Imagination. I feel that developers, (there are exceptions) generally only are concerned about profit and could care less about emotional and visual impact of what they are doing.

Q. I’m not sure your idea goes anywhere, but do you have hopes for it? 

A. No this was simply an exercise in showing what could be done — just another option that will go unrealized. I am not an architect and this will be brushed off as fantasy fanboy fluff, and I’m OK with that. I am used to that reaction being a self-taught artist and self-taught historian. The academic professionals in all these fields hate it when an amateur, unaccredited person shows them up. In art, history and architecture, if you don’t have some fancy-ass published thesis, framed Masters or PhD on the wall, you are nobody. They can’t stand it when someone who did not go through all the schooling they did whips off something quickly that gets more attention than they ever could. I expect no response or anything further and I’m cool with that. I know that the important people, the people of Ottawa, like what I’m doing and that’s all that matters.

Q. Anything you want to say that you haven’t.

A. I think this whole thing just goes to show that you can’t underestimate the emotions of the citizens of a city. We may not be a flashy metropolis, but we have some gorgeous buildings downtown, and people don’t want them messed with, especially when so called “experts” from Toronto condescendingly tell us what we should like in a building. We know what we like, and it’s the Château Laurier.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.