Day 6

Why this architecture critic supports a proposed addition to the Château Laurier despite backlash

Ottawa city councillors are taking heat over a proposed, modern addition to the historic Château Laurier hotel. Alex Bozikevic, the architecture critic for the Globe and Mail, explains why he's one of the few people publicly supporting this and other modern additions to heritage buildings.

'The craftsmanship that went into that building 100 years ago is literally impossible to reproduce today'

Larco Investments has had its architects do five versions of an addition for the Chateau Laurier. The fifth is several storeys shorter and has more limestone than the first. (Larco Investments)
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Ottawa city councillors came under fire this week over a proposed addition to the Château Laurier hotel, but at least one architecture critic supports altering the national historic site.

"There's an idea among heritage planners and heritage experts that a new building that adds on to an important historic site should look different," said Alex Bozikovic, the architecture critic for the Globe and Mail.  

The modern design of the boxy new wing proposed by the hotels owner, Vancouver's Larco Investments, has been criticized for being out of step with the turreted hotel. Some have described it as looking like a "radiator" in sharp contrast against the limestone of the Château Laurier, which opened in 1912, and the neighbouring east block of Parliament Hill. 

Despite the debate, Ottawa city councillors voted down a motion twice this week to put the project on hold.

Bozikovic says the plan deserves some scrutiny, but it would be impossible to match the original design perfectly. A modern add-on, then, is a much better compromise.

He explained to Day 6 host Brent Bambury why he believes the building's proposed new wing works. Here's part of their conversation.

Why are you the only person signing on to this design in the entire country? 

I think, first of all, I'm not. 

I think there are probably a lot of people out there and I have heard from some of them, you know, who agree that an addition to the Château Laurier that is not in the same style as the existing building is a perfectly acceptable idea — including Ottawa's heritage planners. 

The Château Laurier is seen from Parliament Hill in this photo from 1925. (Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada)

OK, so take me through this design proposal. What do you like about the design? 

I should start by saying that there are a lot of different ways that this can be done. But in broad strokes, there's an idea among heritage planners and heritage experts that a new building that adds on to an important historic site should look different. 

There's a sort of there's an international consensus on that, which is why Ottawa has a policy that this new building should be subordinate but complementary. 

This design, which is the fifth version of a design for the site [pictured above], it responds to the existing hotel by picking up on its materials. It uses the same Indiana limestone that the hotel does. It uses copper for accents as the existing hotel building does. 

And I think the architects have done a really nice job of putting together a building that, in its details, in its proportions, is quite beautiful; is distinct from the hotel in terms of  the forms and the proportions that it uses. 

But also [it] captures a little bit of the spirit of the existing building. 

[Architecture] captures how people are able to build, what people want to build, the tools and materials that are available at the time.- Alex Bozikovic, the Globe and Mail

As you know, Prince Charles famously said of, I think, the National Gallery in London that the new addition was a 'monstrous carbuncle' on the face of a beloved friend. Is this addition to the Chateau Laurier a monstrous carbuncle? 

I don't think it is. And, you know, I think Prince Charles was wrong about the building that he was talking about as well. 

Why is a pretty complicated question. I think we need to distinguish between what makes a contemporary work of architecture beautiful and what makes it fit in with what goes in around it — or not fit in — versus, sort of, the larger question of whether there's any case to be made for doing a new building.

There's sort of this larger argument that whatever we build in this context should look old fashioned in the same way as the old thing, you know, which is not a very carefully considered point of view, I don't think. 

And then there are more subtle arguments you can make, which people in Ottawa have been making, about whether this building could be made slightly better or could be done in a slightly different way. 

But let's go back to, you said, the argument that the addition should look like the existing building.

I've seen people talk about that and they talk about it in terms of the Disney-fication of the building, sort of continuing this kind of style that's no longer contemporary. 

But what is wrong with a Disney-fication if it's a popular building and people want the style to be continued — they're the people that use the building — why not just do it? Why not go ahead with it?

If you could reproduce the existing building exactly that would be one thing. But you can't. 

That kind of stonework, the craftsmanship that went into that building 100 years ago is literally impossible to reproduce today. 

So you're going to get something that looks kind of like the original and often those half imitations of older buildings date really badly. 

There are a lot of 1980s buildings right now that tried to pick up on the language of historic buildings that now look very much like 1980s buildings. 

Alex Bozikovic is the Globe and Mail's architecture critic and author of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide. (The Globe and Mail)

We had some fun playing Tom Green off the top, but with all respect to him there are experts in architecture who've come out against this design. 

Phyllis Lambert from the Canadian Centre for Architecture is among them. So do you believe you're giving a pass to the specific design of this addition?

I think there are reasonable criticisms that could be made of this design. 

The Lalji family who own Larco Investments are thoughtful developers and property owners. They have a relationship with this particular architect, Peter Clewes and his firm Architects Alliance, who do a lot of commercial work and do it very well. 

But, you know, Peter Clewes also has his own particular take. He has his own ideas about the form and the way he likes to make buildings look these days which other people can disagree with. 

I don't think that a building, just because it is contemporary in its expression, necessarily has to look like this. I think there might be other solutions that other people might bring forward that are contemporary that might be better loved by average folks. 

But is there any architecture that you think is inviable; that you think, 'there's no way you can put an addition onto this structure and make it work'?

What's interesting about architecture for me is that it expresses where society is at not just culturally but also economically. It captures how people are able to build, what people want to build, the tools and materials that are available at the time. 

Social, economic, technological as well as aesthetic, all of these different dimensions come together in a building and my feeling is that building should be representative of their time. They should express the culture of their moment. And, as I say, there are different ways to do that. 

But I don't think in general that reproducing the commercial architecture of a particular style of 105 years ago is really the way to go.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Alex Bozikovic, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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