When Architecture Fails to Speak for Itself…The Château Laurier addition.

Imagine it is 2030 and over the past decade the Château Laurier addition has been derided not only for its misunderstanding of architecture, but for the City’s poor decision to allow this decorated box to be constructed. In 2030, visitors to the Capital are surprised that a generic rectangular box, clearly struggling to relate to the Picturesque Château, was ever built. They will ask: isn’t it a National Historic Site? Weren’t there strict controls? Didn’t it hold a symbolism and meaning that is part of the City’s identity that should be better respected?

This future cannot be: an outside architect, who does not fully appreciate context, produces a weak design that is built because we lack awareness of our own architectural identity.

Downtown Ottawa is composed of four quadrants: a federal precinct (north of Wellington and Mackenzie), a business core (south of Wellington), a former transportation hub (east of Sussex Drive) and a people’s market (the Byward Market). Each quadrant holds its own architectural expression. The federal quadrant is revivalist, with nationalist and historicist meanings that the original architects of the Château Laurier understood. The office towers of the central business core offer another expression – more functional and less inspired by an aesthetic approach to architecture. The Union Station, the Canal and the driveways are transport routes and buildings for the core. The Byward Market is a human-scaled pedestrian zone.

What architectsAlliance and their conservation architects, ERA Architects, are proposing is the insertion of a functional, albeit now partially dressed, decorated box into the historicist precinct. They resist and ignore the conceptual and architectural language of this space.

Château Laurier Addition, 4th Version (May 2018) released by Larco Investments.

As version has followed version, it has become abundantly clear that the architects do not understand the place. They are misguided in understanding the identity of Ottawa and its relationship to landscape and the spectacle of this romanticized space.

Good architecture speaks for itself. It is not defended for years by the designer. Good architecture may be challenging, radical and exciting, but that is not the story of this addition. It is a story of a resistant architect, and by consequence a resistant owner, neither of whom can see the values of the Chateau Laurier.

Peter Clewes insists he is not interested in being popular (although his communication team released to the media that 70% of respondents support the latest design), and he considers Ottawa to be  “fearful of change” and “skeptical of change” (“Château Laurier architect defends modernist addition,” CBC, June 11, 2018). Actually, it is not that change is feared, but that we do not want poor change – also known as a mistake.

Rationalizing beauty is always a red flag, and this is what the architects are desperately trying to do after unveiling their fourth version of the design. Not only is the work now truly a decorated box, there is a paucity of beauty.

Both Peter Clewes and Michael McLelland have at expert committees and City-controlled public consultations, explained their design as a modernist interpretation of the Picturesque and associational values of the Château Laurier. They have used poor examples (including the Louvre addition, Foster’s Reichstag and the urbanist addition to the Glasgow School of Art) as justifications for their decorated box. But all miss the fundamental flaws of their design: its lack of symbolic language; its massing relationship; its intellectual language; its ethical expression.

The debate over the design is not one of ancients versus moderns – as Clewes (who is ‘award-winning’ – what architectural firm is not these days?) and their team have tried to frame the debate. It is, in fact, a debate about poetry and ethical poesis (or the ethics of creating). The morality and ethics of the architects’ imagination in understanding the cultural expression of early 20th century Canada, in all its complexity, is what should drive the design of the addition to the Chateau Laurier.

Instead, what we have is an architect who is wishing to defend his design within a simplistic framework of modernist-versus-postmodernist world. Meaning, Clewes’ modernism is a counterpoint to the aesthetic superficiality of post-modern designs (or a 20th-century historicism that he likely abhorred in the 1980s). His argument does not truly respond to the public debate. The real debate is about the ethics of architecture and why the wealthy owners cannot resolve to listen to public and professional opinion on what is most appropriate for an addition.

Clewes’ arguments for defending the design morphed as each iteration of the design was unveiled. His arguments have included: positioning the addition as contemporary while also respecting the Château Laurier’s heritage; that the addition is not an addition to the Château, but an object now related to the urban landscape of the park; that the glass block is a silhouette or shadow – or even the opposite, a “luminous palette” that does not compete or “overwhelm the heritage features” of the Château. A confident intelligent design does not constantly shift in justification to suit taste and fashion, whether it be for the general public or for the approval process.

Earlier attempts at the addition were intended to be an abstraction of the Château’s architecture. Now, in the latest design, we have an abstraction that has lost its essence due to Clewes and his team’s desperate search for material ornament to appease those critical of the design (more specifically, the City of Ottawa’s Urban Design Review Panel). I suspect they will ultimately succeed since the City’s planning department will capitulate to almost any powerful landowner.

Obviously, architecture is experienced in different ways than an artwork, but the concept of a work that is an object of beauty can be achieved. Additions are challenging, especially when the previous addition, (designed in 1928 by John S. Archibald with John Schofield) was a subtle, distinguishable wing that was praised and that the public enjoyed when unveiled. It used ornament to extend the language of the original building. Indeed, when the original owners were not satisfied with the first version of the Château Laurier in 1908, they fired the architect!

An example recently sent to me was the insertion by Ptolemy Dean Architects at Westminster Abbey. An internal stair would have damaged the building’s historic fabric. In response, the Gothic abbey opted to create an external staircase to access the exhibition rooms. Though a small insertion to the site, the “steampunk” Neo-Gothic element is contemporary as well as historicist. It certainly would comply with the Standard 11 of the Standard & Guidelines.

Weston Tower, Westminster Abbey, London, UK (Ptolemy Dean, architects, 2018)

At this exasperating stage of the process, I would even entertain out of desperation a reproduction as an option (see Robert Stern’s Pauli Murray & Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, 2017).

Design can be symbolic and express its function. Clewes’ design is now frantically adding decoration – not ornament, in hopes of finally acquiring that precious building permit. This version of the addition still does not express the symbolism that is the Chateau Laurier. It is why it continues to fail as an addition and should not be built.

The Château Laurier may be in private hands, but there is a public function to the building that must be understood in this debate. For a building type – the grand railway hotel – it is young, only a little more than a century old. But the significance of its expression is as equal to the cathedral-like qualities of the Parliament buildings.

Attempts to build decorated boxes within the Parliamentary precinct have been proposed before. Can this neo-modernist box, now fully decorated and facing Majors Hill Park, become part of the narrative of our identity? I doubt it.

In 2030, some of us will pine for the Château Laurier’s dignified qualities before the addition. We will be embarrassed to tell a younger generation of the addition’s failure to incite excitement and create a sense of place. We will need to explain to our visitors why it was a mistake. We will explain who the architects were and how Council at the time decided to allow this to happen, without understanding its design flaws.

On the other hand, there is an election this year and perhaps Council will wish not to be remembered for a poor decision with major consequences for us all.

The preferred option of an open, transparent, national competition, with public engagement which would lead to citizens embracing Larco’s participatory vision for one of their most beloved landmarks, could still occur if they simply halted this process.

Incentive for Historic Places

Years have passed since there has been attention to federal legislation for historic places in Canada. As Canada marks its 150th year, it may be the year to make a difference that would bring Canada to an equal footing with most G20 countries.

A new private members bill has been tabled by Parliament: Bill C-323, an act to amend the Income Tax Act (rehabilitation of historic property) . Introduced by York-Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan, he stated in the House:

Mr. Speaker, this bill creates a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Canada. It is designed to help those who invest in our cultural heritage.

It is a meaningful measure to strengthen heritage infrastructure. By maintaining historic buildings and undertaking costly heritage renovations, citizens undertake a considerable private burden from which we all benefit through the preservation of our past and the places that have made our country. This bill seeks, in a small way, to provide some support for them for the considerable investment they make on behalf of all of us.

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation nearing, this bill is an opportunity for all members of the House to show their support for preserving Canada’s built heritage. These changes will help save our most important historical structures for our children and grandchildren to enjoy for generations to come.

This bill introduces:

  • a 20% tax credit on eligible costs for rehabilitation work done to designated historic places (commercial & owner-occupied residential); and
  • an accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (25%/50%/25%) for eligible capitalized costs incurred under the same conditions of the tax credit (commercial only).

It would apply to private and non-profit historic places, but not to federally owned sites since the government does not tax itself.

Recently I was told that few countries actually have legislation in place at the federal level – a surprise to me. If we were to compare apples to apples, our legislative environment is on par with continental Europe, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and perhaps Singapore. Most of these countries have comprehensive legislation that is more than commemorative in nature. In the case of the USA, their tax incentives have created billions of financial wealth while retaining many of their historic places.

In Canada, national historic sites are governed by the Historic Sites and Monuments Act (updated in 1985), the National Parks Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act. The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change may:

(a) by means of plaques or other signs or in any other suitable manner mark or otherwise commemorate historic places;

(b) make agreements with any persons for marking or commemorating historic places pursuant to this Act and for the care and preservation of any places so marked or commemorated;

(c) with the approval of the Governor in Council, establish historic museums;

(d) with the approval of the Treasury Board, acquire on behalf of Her Majesty in right of Canada any historic places, or lands for historic museums, or any interest therein, by purchase, lease or otherwise; and 

(e) provide for the administration, preservation and maintenance of any historic places acquired or historic museums established pursuant to this Act.

The weakness of this process is that it is commemorative in nature and does not protect or create an incentive to save a historic place beyond mounting a plaque. An all too common pattern was to demolish the place and then erect a plaque to mark what once was there. As in this case, it is clear that Canada remains behind much of the world in terms of understanding and protecting its historic places at the federal level.

There is strength at the provincial and municipal levels, but they too have their own obstacles to overcome.

In 1999, the federal Liberal government of the day developed the Historic Places Initiative (HPI). It would build a national register of historic places, create national standards for conservation of historic places, develop a tax incentive, and propose new legislation which would create in law protection of historic places at the federal level (rather than commemorative and administrative protection). Only parts of this initiative were fulfilled.

The passage of a private members bill can be challenging. All-party support is a must, committee reviews need to be collaborative, readings require good amendments and a non-partisan Senate review is best. Finally, the bill may pass royal ascent. It is a long and arduous process.

The passing of Bill C-323 is the beginning of a return to the Historic Places Initiative – which oddly was not supported by the Harper Government yet this bill is supported by two members of the former government’s cabinet!

The other initiative (a separate Historic Places Act) may be the next step. For now, Bill C-323 is a start.

For more information:

RAIC support for Bill C-323

National Trust’s Financial Arguments for Bill C-323

Kenopsia and Heritage?

Several years ago artist John Koenig began a word project by coining new words for odd emotions and experiences in contemporary life. They may not be in the OED yet, but some of the words resolve some of those unexpressed feelings that are hard to explain when working in the field of heritage.

Heritage is unfortunately wrapped in many emotional responses – passionate people who are activists or professionals trying to ‘save’ a place from destruction. Often, their passion is redirected to their colleagues causing self-destruction of many. (I have met too many young people who have tried to be involved in the field, but eventually are dissuaded because of the dominance of some and the exclusiveness of others.)

To examine the emotions of heritage one doesn’t need to look far. Nostalgia, a powerful emotion of recalling the past, is often connected to heritage. In a negative sense, it may shroud history and play with facts. It can elicit pleasure and sadness, depending on the memory. This wistful emotion once explained homesickness, (Greek nostos – to return home), but has since been romanticized to embrace many more feelings of yearning for the past. Lowenthal has written on the role of nostalgia in heritage.

What of the emotions that we experience in heritage, but can’t quite seem to pin down? Enter John Koenig’s newly created emotional states that are hard to explain. One of his definitions that touches me is Kenopsia:

n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.

I have worked on places that have lost their vitality and have tried to revive them through other means (commemoration, museum, tourism etc.), in some cases successfully, in others, perhaps not. Koenig’s poetics permit us to finally have words in heritage that can explain our reaction to the state of a place. Kenopsia’s dark atmosphere can also elicit attraction and inquiry. Often when places are abandoned, they draw us nearer, but also elicit a wish that these abandoned places remained hidden. It is the irony of heritage: an abandoned place, neglected and forlorn is more attractive as heritage than an active and living place.

A recent example of Kenopsia, was the abandoned CBK transmitter station in Watrous, Saskatchewan, owned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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CBK Transmitter, Watrous, Saskatchewan (Claude-Jean Harel, Exploring Canada, 2014)

 

The CBC is not obligated under federal legislation and/or policy to manage its places using conservation principles and has limited budgets as the current federal government reduces its public funding. The Art Deco transmitter station was designed by CBC Chief Architect, Gordon McKinstry as a shrine in 1939 to the aural age of wireless transmission. Yet since the 1970s, the place was disused and neglected (cue a scene from a Cohen brother film). If visited, you would have had a ‘kenopsic’ experience…What a wonderful word, but the transmitter will be demolished. Now we need a word for demolishing a place without understanding if it is important to our culture.