September 1, 2007
by Ian Chodikoff
Architecture can be considered a barometric indicator of a society’s health, communicating its confidence to build and occupy spectacular buildings. But our federal government’s decision to sell many of its properties and to consolidate its programmatic requirements across Canada and abroad is sending out a clear message that it is interested in pursuing only its most basic business and diplomatic interests, while forsaking any opportunity to improve its physical and cultural presence through architecture. Its recent actions may limit Canada’s abilities to sustain itself as a cultural and business presence around the world.
In late August, the federal government began to implement its plan to dispose of three-dozen office properties. Nine federal buildings in cities across the country were sold for $1.64 billion to Larco Investments Ltd., a private Vancouver real estate company. After completing the sale of the buildings, the government will lease back the properties for the next 25 years. Meanwhile, taxpayers will still be responsible for the maintenance and upgrades to the interiors, HVAC, elevators, plumbing and electrical systems, while Larco will receive a management fee based on a percentage of the gross rents. As a result of the deal, the percentage of properties that the government leases from private companies has increased from 43 to 47 percent–for the time being.
Internationally, the Conservative government announced a year ago that it was planning on consolidating some of its missions abroad. This resulted in the closing of two consulates in Japan (Fukuoka and Osaka), as well as consulates in St. Petersburg and Milan. Offsetting these closures, the government recently announced that it would be opening consulates in locations like Yemen and Azerbaijan. These offices are merely following business interests–in this case, Alberta’s oil companies who are eager to exploit natural resources–while fortifying the government’s determination to sell Canada as an “energy superpower.”
As a further cost-cutting measure, the Canadian government is selling many of its large and historic apartments in London, Paris, Rome and New York to buy or rent more efficient office space and housing in anonymous buildings for its civil servants.
In London alone, Canada owns 75 houses with an estimated combined value of more than $150 million. This real estate portfolio excludes two large office buildings–the neoclassical Canada House on Trafalgar Square and Macdonald House on Grosvenor Square; the latter is expected to be sold at an undisclosed date. One of the more important London residences to be auctioned off is a four-storey house on the edge of Regent’s Park. Designed by John Nash in 1825, it is valued between $8- and $12-million. Cashing in on the health of the current real estate market, the government feels that it can no longer justify owning large properties requiring significant upkeep and maintenance.
As for New York, the prime pieces of Manhattan real estate that Canada currently owns and which are expected to put up for sale are the personal residences of the consul general and UN ambassador–both located at 550 Park Avenue in a 17-storey 32-unit limestone building dating back to 1917. Close to Central Park, these residences are routinely used for entertaining. But having such a seemingly ostentatious representation of Canada in New York is a moot point these days, especially since the Conservatives have eliminated nearly all spending on cultural events by these diplomatic outposts–events relating to film, music, literature and architecture.
With such important buildings as Raymond Moriyama’s Canadian Embassy in Tokyo or Arthur Erickson’s Canadian Chancery in Washington, the history of Canadian architectural diplomacy is well known. More recent examples of global architecture-as-ambassador include the Dutch Embassy in Berlin by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, the SCDA’s Singapore High Commission in New Delhi, and Leo A. Daly’s new Embassy of Italy in Washington. The idea that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is ignoring the dividends of enhancing Canada’s presence and national identity–both at home and abroad–by selling off our real estate portfolio in the pursuit of cheap housing and office space is shortsighted. Moreover, it is highly indicative of his failure to recognize that culture and diplomacy carry a much longer-term objective than facilitating an oil-drilling deal for a handful of Canadian companies.
IAN CHODIKOFF ICHODIKOFF@CANADIANARCHITECT.COM
THE RECENTLY COMPLETED DUTCH EMBASSY IN BERLIN BY OMA/REM KOOLHAAS REINFORCES THE IMPORTANCE OF A COUNTRY'S COMMITMENT TO PRESENT A STRONG AND PROGRESSIVE IMAGE OF ITSELF THROUGH ARCHITECTURE, EITHER AT HOME OR ABROAD.