Guest Editorial: Designing for Democracy

Architect Bruce Haden on the design competition for Block 2, the city block directly across from Parliament Hill.

An international design competition is underway to redesign the city block facing Parliament Hill. Photo courtesy PSPC

The international design competition for Block 2—the city block directly across from Parliament Hill—is without a doubt the most important competition in Canada so far this century. I am privileged to be the Jury Chair, and Canadian Architect editor (and Block 2 Jury member) Elsa Lam has invited me to share some thoughts about it in this guest editorial.

The building program for the redeveloped city block consists primarily of offices for MPs and Senators, along with meeting and committee rooms. However, despite its mostly private program, it will have a very public face. The complex will complete the enclosure of the great Parliamentary Lawn, and so will be a highly visible piece of architecture at the symbolic heart of Canada’s democracy.

In his book A Fair Country, Block 2 jury advisor John Ralston Saul notes that a critical aspect of Canadian democracy is its tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. In Saul’s appraisal, these qualities are not weaknesses, but an appropriate response to a vast and diverse nation. This insight has been brought home to me more clearly as I, like many of us, watch the recent internal conflicts of our neighbour to the south, which are often amplified by the rigid text of a fraying Constitution.

Buildings, of course, are only a tiny part of creating a durable democracy. But as an architect who is passionate about the role of architecture as a symbol of civic virtues—and a container for civic life—I believe we must not underestimate the value of a prominent investment in our unique democracy at this critical time. I am convinced this perspective is shared by all the participants on the selection side of the Block 2 competition: the jury, the RAIC, advisors, representatives of our Senate and Parliament, and Federal Government employees. This shared sense of contribution has brought an unusual combination of passion, clarity, and humility to the deliberations so far. While such a complex program, site and process can never be free of conflicting views, this particular set of dedicated people and fine conversations have renewed my gratitude and pride in being Canadian.

The competition has been set up as a two-stage process. Twelve teams were selected through an RFQ earlier this year, and the Stage 1 submissions were received in the summer. Multiple technical advisor teams provided a preliminary analysis of the submissions, and the jury members met in September in Ottawa to narrow the field to a shortlist of six for Stage 2. The final entries are due in early 2022, and the prize winners will be selected in April next year.

The comprehensive process mirrors the complexity of the site. The disjointed block facing Parliament Hill contains multiple heritage buildings of varied quality, and some empty lots. Critically, it is split into two parts by the former American Embassy and the CIBC Banking Hall; both buildings and the space between them have been gifted to Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis as an Indigenous Peoples Space (IPS) at the heart of the Parliamentary Precinct. As the discussions about the future form and use of the IPS are ongoing, the competition rules set up this portion of the site as an excluded zone. However, the current Canadian conversations about Reconciliation—and the prominence of the IPS on the site—means that the competitors must grapple with the potent issue of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian nation-state.

Fortunately, the Jury has perhaps the largest Indigenous representation of any architectural competition that has ever been held in Canada—including six Indigenous members, of whom four were able to attend Stage 1 deliberations. The involvement of thoughtful members of Canada’s Algonquin nation, on whose historic territory Parliament Hill stands, as well as other Indigenous jury members from across Canada, helped shape the jury’s conversation about the appropriate relationship between the IPS and the future Block 2 designs. I found the discussions around this critical issue to be inspirational, and helpful in bringing the jury to clarity.

When we met in September, the path at the centre of the Parliamentary Lawn was full of the desperately sad, tiny shoes symbolizing the dead children from the residential school atrocities. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the responsibility of this future architecture to provide an inspirational and timeless backdrop to both the triumphs and tragedies of our Canada.

I am excited about seeing the work of Canadian and global architects as they refine their design solutions for Block 2. Nothing would please me more than if the remaining six teams made our final selection next year profoundly difficult.