Ottawa

The big cover-up: Centre Block to be draped with 'trompe l'oeil' wrap during work

The federal government will soon cover Centre Block with a "trompe l'oeil" wrapping that will replicate the visage of the historic Parliament Hill building during its ongoing rehabilitation.

Will preserve building's historic facade as restoration continues

Construction on a trompe l'oeil covering that will replicate the visage of the historic Parliament Hill building during its ongoing rehabilitation will begin in the spring. (Instagram/@pspc_spac)

The federal government will soon drape Centre Block with a trompe l'oeil covering that will replicate the visage of the historic Parliament Hill building during its ongoing rehabilitation.

Work to install the $3.9-million covering will begin later this spring, starting with the north side, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

French for "deceive the eye," trompe l'oeil refers to an artistic technique that attempts to mimic three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.

The idea of shrouding Centre Block with a large trompe l'oeil tarp — a method of obscuring construction work that's popular in Europe — has been around since at least 2016, when it was pitched by Ottawa Tourism as a way of maintaining the Peace Tower's look during the decade-long rehabilitation efforts.

At the time, there were concerns about the price, with the National Capital Commission noting such coverings can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ottawa Tourism issued a similar call in 2018, hoping to preserve the Peace Tower's Instagrammable "money shot" for future visitors to the nation's capital.

Keeping some semblance of the "crucial icon" will mean a lot to many of Ottawa's roughly 11 million annual visitors, said Catherine Callary, the vice-president of destination development with the local tourism agency.

"It represents Canadian democracy. It's the backdrop for many of the protests and the demonstrations that take place on the front lawn. It is where big decisions are made for the whole country," Callary told CBC News last week.

"[Tourists] can't just come back another time or next week. This is when they're here. This is when they'd like to see what is probably Ottawa's most photographed site."

Scaffolding lines the Hall of Honour during a media tour of Centre Block last summer. A tarp replicating Centre Block's historic exterior will soon be installed outside the building, according to the federal government. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Tarps needed anyways, says PSPC

According to PSPC spokesperson Michèle Larose, the federal government is spending $1.5 million for the wrapping, plus an additional $2.4 million to convert it into a trompe l'oeil.

The tarp will be installed first on Centre Block's north facade, facing the Ottawa River, before extending around the sides and the south facade on Parliament Hill over the course of the rehabilitation work, Larose said in a statement.

The images being used are based on actual photographs of Centre Block. The hands on the Peace Tower's clock will be set to 11:45, which represents the time the tower and its carillon were inaugurated in 1927, she said.

Tarps would have been required regardless, Larose noted, in order to create a "climate-controlled and safe environment" for the work, the "largest and most complex rehabilitation project in Canada's history."

The decade-long endeavour to overhaul Centre Block — which houses the House of Commons, the Senate chambers, the Library of Parliament and MP's offices — involves upgrading the buildings' seismic resilience, systems and security, while also making them more energy-efficient and accessible.

The federal government is also building a new welcome centre to handle the tens of thousands of tourists that visit Parliament Hill each year.

Trompe l'oeil coverings have been used elsewhere to preserve historic facades during renovation work. Here, one covers the scaffolding during construction at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)

As for the project's progress: the masonry work on the north side is roughly one-quarter done, Larose said, while more than seven million kilograms of asbestos-containing material have been removed from the site's interior.

The excavation work for the welcome centre is roughly 65 per cent complete, she added, with at least 27,000 truckloads of rock hauled away.

At the moment, PSPC said it has no plans to install similar coverings on any other buildings.

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