Don’t Bank on Bank

Proposed Project Bank Street Design Competition, Ottawa, Ontario

Text Elsa Lam

In 2002, a design competition was launched for a building on the nation’s most prominent site: Parliament Hill. Located at Bank and Wellington Streets, the $275.8-million building would house a dozen committee rooms for the House of Commons, 39 offices for senators, underground parking for 300 vehicles and a materials handling facility. It would be the first new building to grace the parliamentary precinct in almost 70 years.

This June, Public Works Canada announced the results of the celebrated competition–and to the dismay of those involved, simultaneously declared that the project was cancelled. “We made the decision based on changing priorities,” explains Bhagwant Sandhu, Director-General of Public Works. “There was unanticipated deterioration of the West Block, and that forced us to place our attention and resources on its immediate renovation.”

Despite its annulment, the competition was one of the country’s most significant architectural events. Historically, constructions on the Hill have acted as symbols of the nation’s developing ethos. Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones’ original Gothic Revival Parliament–the winning entry to an 1859 century design competition–eschewed American neoclassical models, nodding instead towards the recently completed British Houses of Parliament. Devastated by fire in 1916, Parliament was rebuilt with new materials and structural techniques, in a sleeker, more attenuated complex that would come to symbolize Canada’s growing independence in the 20th century. Heroic styling came to the Hill in the form of Ernest Cormier’s 1939 Supreme Court building–the last building to be constructed on the precinct, and its only modern edifice.

The Bank Street building would have been the next step in this chronicle, charged with symbolizing the political aspirations of the nation as it entered the 21st century. Criteria for the competition were stringent: the new building was to represent contemporary politics, but be stylistically compatible with the Hill’s Gothic Revival architecture. In its layout and planning, public accessibility had to be reconciled with high-level security requirements. The building was to achieve LEED gold-level certification, setting a national example for ecologically sustainable design. The 200,000 square feet of required space was to be accommodated on a small site with steep topography while preserving view corridors.

Five teams of architects were shortlisted to submit entries to the competition. Unveiled for the first time this summer, their projects demonstrate the sophistication of contemporary Canadian architecture in meeting these challenges with unique design approaches. “Each of the schemes adopted a very different organizational parti on a very tight site,” comments Toronto urban planner Ken Greenberg, who organized a jury for the competition that included Brigitte Shim, British architect Edward Jones, French architect Bernard Reichen, landscape architect Moura Quayle, MP Robert Marleau, and Senator William Rompkey. “It demonstrates how much room there is for design creativity.”

Several of the entries, including the design by KPMB in joint venture with Gagnon Letellier Cyr architectes and Barry Padolsky Associates, took their cues directly from the language of the existing parliamentary buildings. The 10-storey structure is a deconstructed rendition of the neo-Gothic, emphasizing verticality in its detailing and topped by a dramatic copper roof.

Plumbing a different vein of postmodern interpretation, the proposal by Diamond + Schmitt Architects in collaboration with Katz Webster Clancey Associates presented a highly abstracted, orthogonally structured version of its neo-Gothic neighbours. Alluding in materiality and massing strategy to its historic counterparts, the base of the building was to be clad in the same kind of sandstone used for the West Block, and its lighter top in horizontally banded glass, suspended in front of copper panels.

Dan Hanganu’s entry experimented more boldly with massing schemes. Completed in collaboration with Lemay Dorval Fortin Doyle & Associates and Mill & Ross Architects, it combined a low podium with a slim, contemporary tower whose cleft form evoked the Gothic spires of Parliament. Within the podium, a sunken courtyard garden formed the central space of the scheme, giving access to the committee rooms and relating to the natural landscape beyond.

The project by Provencher Roy, developed in collaboration with the Zeidler Grinnell Partnership and Hotson Bakker Architects, similarly achieved a smaller scale–in this case, by partially lowering the built form into the valley at the end of Bank Street. Emphasizing connections with nature, their scheme suggested a dialogue with the surrounding landscape by allowing the valley to penetrate into the core of the building as a dramatic central atrium.

The most anti-monumental of the proposals–and the unanimous choice of a courageously contemporary jury–was the scheme by Saucier + Perrotte, developed in joint venture with Stantec (formerly Dunlop Architects) and Cohos Evamy. “It was a refreshing, modern scheme that didn’t make any concession to stylistic contextualism,” says jury member and architect Edward Jones. “Instead, it addressed the site guidelines not with condescension or over-deference, but with a good piece of modern architecture.”

The compact structure proposed by the team was formed through a landscape-inspired approach, which manipulated the ground plane to reconnect topographies that changed across the site. “We talked about the eastern and western parliamentary districts [which meet at the site] as a kind of chessboard, with these very strong stone buildings already in place,” explains Stantec’s Michael Moxam, one of the lead architects on the team. “Instead of creating another piece, we wanted to do something with the chessboard itself.”

At the core of the scheme was a continuous folding plate element, originating on the upper plateau and hugging a natural cliff as it descended as a promenade towards the river. The surfaces of the ribbon-like structure were covered with landscapes that alternately provided civic and ecological functions, including a public plaza, a water management basin, green roofs, a belvedere, and gardens. Contained within its folds were the principal public spaces of the project, including the committee rooms, set partly underground against the side of the cliff.

Floating above the upper plaza, a quietly elegant box contained the secure Senate and House of Commons functions. Relating in materiality and scale of detailing to its parliamentary neighbours, its faade of layered limestone and glass was configured in a shifting pattern to bring natural light and views to the offices inside. “By strategically spreading onto the site, we were able to keep the overall impression of the building being much smaller, half the height than it would have been otherwise,” explains Gilles Saucier. “We then had the opportunity to treat the building as a contemporary sculptural piece.”

The scheme epitomizes an approach being embraced by a number of Canadian architects, whose work focuses on contextual sensitivity. Beyond setting an example for architecture within the nation, the building would have reinforced the identity of Canadian architecture, potentially boosting its profile as a cultural export. “The Bank Street building would have done the image of Canadian architecture well,” remarks Jones. “It exemplified an aspect of Canadian architecture that’s demonstrating a healthy resistance to the extreme showmanship of many international practices. It’s a great pity that it’s not being realized.”

Although plans for the building are currently shelved, Public Works hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a contemporary addition in the near future. “The requirements for the space haven’t gone away,” remarks Sandhu, “so it’s quite possible that an outcome of the long-term vision and plan review [currently underway] would result in a recommendation for a new building.”

Meanwhile, Sandhu says that the $1.5 million paid to the shortlisted architects remains a valuable investment. He cites the development of prototypes for committee rooms, innovative risk analysis protocols, and the experience of working with a competition tendering model as lessons that will inform future projects.

Furthermore, architects stand to profit from the considerable creative effort mustered by the competition. Its proposals represent the results of extensive design research into key contemporary issues of sustainability, heritage, and Canadian architectural identity. For these lessons, they deserve to be discussed, appraised, and celebrated.

Elsa Lam is currently pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University in New York.