Ottawa’s Chateau Shipping Container


Convivium, 5 July 2019

Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza looks at expansion plans for the capital’s grand old Chateau Laurier and apprehends an act of architectural vandalism.

When Cardus opened our Ottawa office three years back, we were proud to be in the neighbourhood – Parliament a short walk west, the National Gallery and Notre Dame Cathedral a short walk north. Now the neighbourhood appears to be going to heritage.

Messed up heritage politics that is. The grand dame of Wellington Street – the Chateau Laurier – wants to expand, adding an additional 147 rooms on the back. The proposed addition looks like a giant air conditioner or shipping container. Everyone, save for those on the payroll of the owners and those officially charged with preserving our heritage buildings, thinks it ugly and entirely out of place.

Last week a prominent Ottawa architect wrote an open letter to the prime minister, asking the federal government to intervene to stop the extension. Barry Padolsky refers to the proposed expansion as an “imminent act of vandalism in the heart of our capital.” He included in his letter images of how the Chateau Laurier would look from Major’s Hill Park according to the current plans.

It’s not a pretty sight. And it’s actually hard to see the Chateau Laurier at all.

Architecture, even of privately held buildings, is never entirely a private affair. What is built affects not only those who live and work in the buildings, but passersby from the neighbourhood and, in the case of downtown Ottawa, from across the country. 

Even more is it the case with the Chateau Laurier, which, due to proximity and history and architectural grandeur, is often, thought to be part of the Parliamentary precinct itself. Given the prominent events that have taken place there – Jean Chretien literally cooked up the 1982 constitution act during a late-night meeting in the kitchen – it has been referred to as the “third chamber” of parliament.

It was 35 years ago that the Prince of Wales, then a bold, 30-something heir to the throne finding his voice, shocked the architectural establishment in Britain and abroad with his (in)famous address to the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He excoriated modern design, especially when disfiguring existing buildings. He described a proposed extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

Abandoned was the proposal. Will Ottawa find a voice to stop the Chateau’s carbuncle? Except that, the proposal in Ottawa is not so much a carbuncle on the face, but a box over the head entirely.

Speaking of boxes stuck alongside grand hotels, it beggars belief that the Chateau Laurier is proposing exactly what its sister Fairmont property, the MacDonald Hotel in Edmonton, went through. 

When the first oil boom hit, the hotel struggled to keep up with demand, and so affixed to the side of the MacDonald Hotel in 1953 was a 200-room extension. Widely criticized, it came to be known as the “box” in which the MacDonald Hotel came in. In the 1980s, the monstrosity was torn down. 

One does not want to wait 30 years for the Chateau Laurier “box” to meet the same deserved fate.

When discussing a hotel chain that dates to the time Victoria ruled as queen and empress, it is impossible to resist a reference to the emperor’s new clothes. Experts tell us that what is proposed is sound according to enlightened principles of design. Ordinary people can be cowed by experts, but eventually see they are being fed a load of nonsense. Except that, in this case, the nonsense was so apparent that ordinary Ottawa residents balked from the beginning.

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