A rendering of Chateau Laurier with the proposed expansion, viewed from the Rideau Canal locks. City of Ottawa

The city council voted to approve an addition to the historic landmark over criticism that the design is “a travesty” and “frankly grotesque.”

“It’s soooooo ugly.”

There was a chorus of derision in Ottawa last week as the city council moved forward with a controversial addition to Chateau Laurier, an iconic hotel that sits next to the Canadian Parliament in the heart of the city. When beleaguered councilors approved the plan at City Hall, boos and cries of “shame” hissed from the audience.

Never have Ottawans been so united in their hatred of a piece of architecture. The proposed addition to the historic Chateauesque/Gothic Revival-style hotel has been described as a giant radiator, a shipping container, and an air conditioner. One former politician called it a ”travesty which vandalizes a national historic site.” People hate the boxy design for different reasons—some deplore the downgraded view from Major’s Hill Park and the Rideau Canal, while others take issue with the “undemocratic” way in which the addition was approved.

Even Tom Green—a comedian and Ottawa-area native, possibly best known for his starring role in Freddy Got Fingered—has chimed in. He has made recent appearances at City Hall and local radio stations, calling the addition an “architectural abomination.”

The addition’s design, which could be described as Modernist with a faint aura of Brutalism, is not as grand as the original hotel, which opened in 1912. Nor was it meant to be, according to the architect responsible.

“When we’re dealing with historic buildings, we don’t replicate, but we try to be subordinate and be deferential to them,” Peter Clewes, principal of the Toronto-based firm architectsAlliance, said in a Canadian magazine in 2016 after his first proposal for the hotel was panned. Clewes’ statement echoes governmental guidelines on modifying historic places.

In response to feedback, the architects have cut 12 stories down to seven and whittled 218 long-stay rooms to 147. The amount of Indiana limestone, copper, and bronze in the design has increased, and the amount of glass has decreased. Five iterations later, the public is still not satisfied. What the people want, it seems, is not a contemporary building at all but instead what one critic called a “Disneyland” addition—essentially, a replica of the historic building.

View of the hotel and planned addition from Parliament Hill. (City of Ottawa)

But the city council decided last week to move ahead, with Mayor Jim Watson saying that the city’s hands are tied because the building, at the end of the day, is privately owned. “Responsibility for the design of this addition of the Chateau Laurier rests with the architect and the landscape architect as determined by Larco [Investments], the property owner,” he said at the council meeting.

Toon Dreessen, an Ottawa architect and president of Architects DCA, says that’s a loose interpretation of the city’s actual powers over the site. “When Watson says, ‘Private land, we can’t tell them what to do’—he actually completely could, and the city has done so on the previous four versions of this project,” Dreessen said.

Dreessen doesn’t share the visceral hatred of the building that others have expressed, and credits Clewes for making beautiful designs in general. Rather, he takes issue with the city for showing a lack of vision and leadership on the Chateau Laurier expansion. If more Hail Marys are made in the months to come, he hopes the city will open the door to other architects’ input.

Buyer’s remorse

The Chateau Laurier debacle began in September 2016, when hotel owner Larco unveiled the addition’s initial design. People hated it, so the city held an online public consultation a few months later. Nearly 1,800 feedback forms concluded that the majority wanted a replica—a position Ottawans have maintained throughout. The city collected recommendations from a heritage working group, as well as from a volunteer-based urban-design review panel with no enforcement power.

Design tweaks were made, both big and small. Various meetings—some public but most private—were held. On July 11, the design was officially rubber-stamped by the council, mostly in order to avoid a possible $200,000 lawsuit from the hotel owner should the city send it back for review again.

Ultimately, what happened in Ottawa isn’t purely a design meltdown; it’s also a political failure.

Because of the building’s heritage status, the city actually had greater power over the Chateau Laurier design than citizens were led to believe. Early in the process, the council agreed to delegate the bulk of the tedious review to staff, who are not architects. (This kind of delegation of authority also bit the city in the behind on its LRT project.) Dreessen calls it an “abdication of responsibility,” but buyer’s remorse may be a more apt descriptor of the situation. The council gave its approval powers away, then tried to reclaim them when it was too late to make a difference.

So what can Ottawa, and other cities, learn from this?

Councilors are elected to run cities, not design them—but that doesn’t mean they should bend to architects’ and developers’ every whim. If Ottawa’s council had acted sooner, it may have been able to work with Larco on a limited design competition and hold more constructive public consultations.

Of course, would-haves don’t help here, but they do help light a path forward. Dreessen advocates for hiring city architects—people who can challenge developers, advise the council on architecture, educate the public about building durable cities, and help establish a cohesive vision and standards for the city’s built environment. That said, even with city architects, councilors are still responsible for imagining what their cities could be—socially, economically, and environmentally—and putting in processes to enable that future.

There are a few administrative boxes left for Larco to check before getting the Chateau Laurier expansion underway, meaning there’s still theoretically time to challenge it before ground is broken in the coming months. Outspoken citizens’ groups, local leaders, and federal politicians have promised to take action.

At this juncture, Ottawans may not be able to fix the “radiator. ” But more broadly, as inequity worsens and climate change advances, experts agree that politicians and the general public must think harder about the built environment and how it serves citizens. “This really speaks to understanding the process of planning approvals and the role of architecture in creating the kind of city we aspire to, as well as the need to connect an aspirational vision with a public process that achieves it,” Dreessen said.

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