Today (June 26) the City’s Planning Committee met to vote on the Built Heritage Sub-Committee’s motion on the Château Laurier. I had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend, but below are the remarks I submitted. My thanks to Linda Hoad for reading them to the Committee on my behalf.

The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada require that an addition to a heritage building be “compatible with, distinguishable from and subordinate to” the historic building. The order of these requirements is not arbitrary. Compatibility is listed first because without it, the other two criteria are pointless. No building which does not pass the compatibility test can be considered to have met the Standards and Guidelines.

That the proposed addition to the Château Laurier is not compatible with the historic building and its setting is no longer in dispute. Among those who have spoken out regarding the incompatibility are the Founding Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a former NCC Chief Architect, two Past Presidents of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, numerous architecture, landscape architecture and heritage professionals, Heritage Ottawa, and scores of concerned citizens.

Moreover, not even the addition’s architect has attempted to make a case for the design’s compatibility with its surroundings. In his remarks to Built Heritage Sub-Committee, Peter Clewes chose instead to claim that the addition had a “gentle and soft touch” that render it “almost invisible.” In other words, yes, it is incompatible – but no one will see it.

The unfortunate reality is that architecture is never invisible (although the renderings of the addition attempt to persuade us otherwise by obscuring the design in deep shadow and hiding it behind trees).

Given that the Standards and Guidelines require compatibility, and that everyone acknowledges that the addition and the Château are not compatible, the remaining question is how to ensure that a substandard design does not get built in the heart of our national capital.

For this, the people of Ottawa are completely dependent on you, our elected representatives. You have the authority and indeed the responsibility to maintain standards and enforce the Ontario Heritage Act.

The Built Heritage Sub-Committee has very appropriately recommended that the design be re-visited. But as we seem to be in somewhat murky procedural waters now, it is crucial that Planning Committee put in place a process that ensures the following:

  • That a genuine variety of design ideas will be considered, rather than merely variations on the current, discredited theme
  • That broad, good-faith and meaningful consultation will be undertaken with a range of stakeholders
  • That the design resulting from this process will be subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of elected officials, as required by the Ontario Heritage Act

The Château Laurier and its setting are a powerful, beloved and iconic emblem of Canadian identity. Any alteration must be overseen with strict vigilance, and anything less than excellence is unconscionable. Whether the eventual addition is magnificent, mediocre or deplorable; whether it is loved or loathed by future generations, will be your most visible and lasting legacy as a committee and as a council. Please exercise your authority and responsibility, as mandated by the Ontario Heritage Act, to safeguard our heritage and your legacy.

Peter Coffman