Editorial: Château Laurier Showdown

Rendering  by Brick Visual, courtesy of architectsAlliance

Ever since initial renderings of a proposed addition to Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier were released in 2016, there has been public outcry against the modernist box, designed by architectsAlliance with ERA Architects. This reached a fevered pitch earlier this week, when a motion was raised (and defeated) in City Council to rescind a heritage permit granted to the development, which had by this point reached its fifth design iteration.

It was an eleventh hour attempt to stop a project that has faced intense scrutiny from the outset. This has come from two camps. A number of architects and historians have argued that the design doesn’t sufficiently embody the picturesque sensibility of the 1912 hotel, and that its massing should be further explored. Heritage Ottawa has taken the position that while a modern addition shouldn’t replicate the look of the original, the design aesthetic of the proposal is inappropriate.

Rendering  by Brick Visual, courtesy of architectsAlliance

The vast majority of the opposition, however, seems to be coming from those who oppose a modern addition—any modern addition—outright. A petition to “block changes to the Château’s classic look” garnered over 8,000 signatures, and a sketch by an Ottawa artist showing an extension that continues the architectural language of the original building has been widely circulated.

What both groups of critics share is a deep-seated concern for the future of a privately-owned site with an important public presence. Like many of Canada’s château-style railway hotels, it’s a designated National Historic Site, and it’s been the locale for many cherished memories—weddings, milestone anniversaries, coming-of-age ceremonies.

The Château Laurier’s location raises the stakes even higher—it’s part of the postcard view of the Parliamentary escarpment, as seen from across the Ottawa River. The French-Loire-Valley-aesthetic, originally chosen by the Grand Trunk Railways in keeping with a look popular for European hotels at the time, became a quasi-official national style for Canada and is picked up in nearby Parliamentary Precinct buildings.

As for the proposed addition, it does some things well. Designed as a pavilion that closes the U-form of the hotel, it replaces a four-storey parking garage. When you pull back the curtains in the grand North Ballroom, you’ll see a landscaped courtyard instead of a concrete wall. New green roofs will be added, replacing the current view of asphalt roofing from many hotel rooms with formal gardens.

Rendering  by Brick Visual, courtesy of architectsAlliance

The exterior of the addition, which stands seven storeys high and whose main elevation faces Major’s Hill Park, is what’s raised the most concern. The façade is composed of limestone strips, interspersed with glazing and bronze rods. Assuming it’s built as depicted, its quality materials will set it a notch above a typical private development. Overall, the proposed building is not a masterwork, but neither does it seem deserving of the epithets of “monstrosity,” “carbuncle,” and worse that have been levelled at it.

And yet, we have now reached a crisis point, where vitriol abounds, and lawsuits threaten. Something has clearly gone wrong.

What could have steered us away from this juncture? Perhaps a different approach to the design process would have been helpful. An international design competition, for instance, would have put the process in a public arena. Or, at the first hint of controversy, the City and hotel owners may have been well-advised to forge strategic alliances with key influencers in the local and national design community, seeking their input and collaboration in shaping the design.

Rendering  by Brick Visual, courtesy of architectsAlliance

The National Capital Commission could have taken a more active role in the design process. Staffers, largely trained as planners, lacked the architectural knowledge to guide the proposals appropriately. The Urban Design Review Panel couldn’t influence the basic expression of the building in the way that locals demanded. While public consultations were held, they don’t seem to have been effective in responding to the outrage, particularly coming from social media. An alternate strategy may have been needed to ensure that Ottawans felt heard.

It may be that mandated expectations—for both design and public approbation—need to be set higher for buildings in exceptional circumstances such as the Château, or for historic landmarks of a certain status. The Château has been protected by provincial legislation, but not under federal statutes. Canada is the only G8 country that does not have federal legislation to protect its National Historic Sites. Any such moves should be backed by appropriate incentives, such as tax credits for expenses related to the rehabilitation of historic properties.

It’s difficult, at this point, to fathom a happy ending to this saga. It would be a minor miracle to see a détente on all sides, with key players on the private and public sides coming together to restore good will and find a better way forward. A more modest hope is that the present public furor can be channeled into stronger policies and processes guiding the design of future buildings, in the capital city and beyond.