, 07.16.2019 01:46 PM

Save the Chateau? Buy it

Several lifetimes ago, when this writer was a Chief of Staff in Jean Chretien’s government – and when the Reform Party was a political force to be reckoned with – stuff started to fall out of the sky.

Well, not the sky, actually. Centre Block’s Peace Tower, to be precise.

Bricks and mortar and other stuff was crumbling and falling onto the ground below. Our bureaucrats had to place some brightly-painted construction hoarding on the ground level, to keep tourists from getting a souvenir they’d never forget. But there was clearly a problem that needed to be addressed.

The bureaucrats, as bureaucrats do, came up with a modernizing solution that would involve the expenditure of several million dollars. Anticipating the reaction of the government-hating Reform Party, I was opposed. The Minister in question, David Dingwall, was in favour. He said something to me I will never forget.

“Warren,” said Dingwall, in that Cape Breton lilt of his, “these buildings do not belong to us. They belong to the people. We are going to do this, and there will be not a peep of protest.”

Dingwall was right, and I was wrong. We went ahead with remediation efforts, and nary a peep was heard from the Reformers, or anyone else.

This tale came to mind, recently, as the Rest of Canada has watched official Ottawa tear itself to shreds over the planned modern addition to the Chateau Laurier. It’s not nice, but this writer has found the sturm und drang rather amusing. It perfectly describes Ottawa, in a way: a bunch of people going apoplectic (a) about change, and about (b) something that doesn’t actually belong to them.

Because, you know, the Chateau Laurier doesn’t belong to the government. Lots of government people spend taxpayer money there, naturally, but they don’t own it.

They sure are acting like they do, however. They don’t want the Chateau Laurier’s owners to make an addition to the hotel that looks different than the way the hotel does now.

Their arguments, in the main, seem to be that the Chateau Laurier looks old, so whatever is attached to it has to look old, too. But is that true?

Well, no. As I type this, I am in Toronto, half a block from the Royal Ontario Museum. It’s an incredible building. Its main structure is more than one hundred years old. On the North side, however, the ROM added an explosion of angular glass and metal, one that aroused a lot of controversy when it was proposed. They added that structure about a decade ago, and the architects call it a deconstructivist crystalline-form structure. It’s beautiful. It has won lots of awards.

If you take a minute and think about it, this sort of thing happens a lot, these days. Architects are coming up with way to fuse modern with traditional right across the country, for both private and public buildings. Among other things, it’s a way of preserving historic buildings while making space for modern buildings which are cleaner, safer and more environmental.

Tradition and modernity aren’t inconsistent. If done right, they’re quite complementary. In a country as old as ours – but in a country that is growing as ours is, by leaps and bounds – it is a way to preserve aspects of the past without being bound to the past. It is a way of embracing modern building methods which are frankly far superior to the ways things were done a Century ago.

Now, if you only like old stuff, you don’t like modern design. Modern design is sleek and clean and avoids fluff. People who like old buildings like fluff. Old buildings are often full of it. The Chateau Laurier has the pretensions of a castle, and with all that implies. It needs to be less pretentious.

The debate raging over the privately-owned Chateau Laurier neatly defines Official Ottawa. It recalls the perpetual 24 Sussex debate. The Prime Minister’s Official Residence is generally regarded as a drafty, windy old barn. No one has been living there for years. But Official Ottawa agonizes about it endlessly, deliberating over whether to tear it down or spend the treasury on it. The opted for the latter.

Ottawa, stop embracing the past. Stop celebrating fluff. Consider the possibilities of 2019 and beyond.

Oh, and this: it’s not your building. If you want to keep it the way it is, buy it.

But use your own money for once, please.


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    Gord says:

    Personally I am a big fan of melding the old and the new. I particularly like what I call the “heritage building under glass” aesthetic – building atriums between historical buildings to tie them together or using glass or translucent construction to wrap the new around or next to the old. (Think Bank of Canada, Brookfield Place in Toronto, the British Museum’s Great Court.) Pei’s Louvre Pyramids were roundly condemned at the time and are now widely admired. New =/= bad.

    (Having said all that, the design of the Laurier addition is a) ugly – I thought brutalism went out in the late 70s – and b) doesn’t really complement the existing building well.)

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      al says:

      Ghery’s atrocity at the ROM is vandalism imo. The real reason that sort of *architecture* is popular is that it is a lot cheaper to build than an authentic stone addition in the theme of the original building (see the facile proposals for the replacing the spire at Notre Dame) and you would be hard pressed to find tradesmen even capable of such work these days. They exist, but most are in the EU.

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        harold b says:

        It’s so ugly. I walk past it fairly often and I always feel like it’s going to fall on me. There’s also a great deal of wasted/unusable space inside the horizontal points of the shards where nothing can be exhibited or used in any way.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:

    When I think of the CL, the fast-moving Martin limousine immediately comes to mind, to pick up Belinda and take her into history.

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    Gyor says:

    A lot of people HATE the modernist addition to the ROM and concider it an eye sore. It might have won awards, but that doesn’t mean it’s designed to appeal to regular people.

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      Fred J Pertanson says:

      Yep. Hate it.


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    JSA says:

    Laurier was a racist like Macdonald, why does he get a pass? Building should be knocked down or, at the very least, be renamed.

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      Fred from BC says:

      “Laurier was a racist like Macdonald, why does he get a pass? ”

      I’ve wondered that myself. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves, so who exactly is getting to pick and choose which historical figures to condemn and erase from history?

      Fact is, 200 years ago everyone was a so-called “racist”. It was the norm. It was accepted…people were raised from birth to believe that their own race was superior to others (and not just the Caucasians, either). Very few people felt otherwise, and of those, most (wisely) kept their discomfort with the status quo to themselves. Ironically, it was Christians who led the way to changing public opinion about racism (modern left-wingers don’t like to be reminded of this, for obvious reasons).

      But again…who decides which historical figures we continue to worship versus the ones we turn against, and why?

      I’m firmly in the “leave my history alone” camp. Judging people who lived two or three hundred years ago by today’s standards is both ludicrous and offensive.

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        Ronald O'Dowd says:


        I’m half way there with you: ludicrous yes, offensive, no. Today’s standards are good but they are still a work in progress. As they should be.

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          Fred from BC says:

          Maybe not offensive, then…maybe more like insulting (to think that I need to be protected and isolated from all the bad things that have even happened anywhere in the world.

          I would go so far as to add little information plaques to the statues, monuments, bridges, schools etc named after people who have been discovered to be ‘not as perfect as we supposed’ (gee, wouldn’t that be just about *everyone*?), but no further than that.

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        JSA says:

        Maybe he gets a pass because he was a French Liberal, dunno. But it sure seems that way: he’s Trudeau’s 2nd favourite Prime Minister, and the LPC has a club for elite donors named after him. Just can’t figure out how that fits in with being a woke progressive, myself.

        At any rate, if the nation is guilty of genocide then the Chateau Laurier might just as well be called Hotel Goebbels.

        * https://youtu.be/Vt7Fs66-3vQ?t=9m10s

        * https://youtu.be/Vt7Fs66-3vQ?t=5m26s

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    Derek Pearce says:

    I love modern architecture but the ROM addition is BS– it looks SO CHEAP (and you can tell they cheaped out) compared to the renderings of how it was supposed to look. My take on is that it is not a “crystal”, it’s a crystal-shaped utility shed.

    I assume you’ve been inside Brookfield Place (the former BCE Place) and the Lambert Galleria? That is an example of how to incorporate old and new. This addition to the Chateau is a fucking abomination and it DOES NOT MATTER if it’s private property– who gives a shit? Is it unheard of for governments to direct private property owners what to do when their plans affect the public enjoyment of space?

    So WK, answer me this: How about I put a 15 storey addition on the top of my house, and paint it in red glitter. It’s my property so tough shit for the neighbours right? I mean, you better support me if you’re going to stick by these principles.

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    Geoffrey Espin says:

    What a calm well-reasoned opinion, WK. Thank you. How do you keep your sanity with such inane commentary? The subject matter was privately owned heritage hotels and the rights of the owners to (presumably) keep them sustainable. Racism, personal taste in modern architecture, Belinda… all completely off topic and irrelevant.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    True, but in my case it’s a broadening out of the conversation. Never done that?

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      Fred from BC says:

      This would probably be the guy who drives exactly the speed limit in the fast lane, Ronald…

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    Dave H says:

    No, the sheik doesn’t own those iconic hotels, and never did. CP Hotels, which acquired Fairmont and took their name, sold off the properties, before later selling the brand to the sheik and then more recently to Accor. They’re simply a hotel brand owner and management company. The individual hotels are all privately owned (except for one lone owned hotel in Bermuda). The Chateau Frontenac is owned by Ivanhoe Cambridge, as is the Royal York. The Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise are owned by Oxford Properties (aka OMERS pension plan). The sheik never bought a single one. (Off topic, but wanted to correct the record).

    There is nothing tired about the Royal York rooms if you saw them recently. It’s just finishing a multi-year long major renovation, much like the Chateau Frontenac did a few years ago. Stunningly beautiful upgrades throughout while keeping historic features. The Chateau Laurier also had a nice interior renovation recently, although not to the same massive extent as some of its brand neighbours in Montreal, Quebec and Toronto.

    I like that the owners want to improve the property, and I don’t mind blending new with old, but I think the proposed addition looks like an ugly giant radiator. But that’s not really any of the governments’ business.

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