Château addition must balance imitation and contrast

Published by the Ottawa Citizen June 25, 2018

By Tobi Nussbaum

The Château Laurier may be a privately owned building, but for the more than 100 years it has graced our landscape, it has developed a very public identity as a beloved symbol of our city. We have seen that love expressed by thousands of residents who have offered comments on the various design iterations of a proposed addition to it.

While we know that no addition is ever going to please everyone, I also believe we have to listen to the wisdom of crowds. The public has said there is something not quite right here. Many are saying, “We understand that an addition to a historic building can, and perhaps even should, be modern, but there needs to be a relationship, a nod to this grand structure that defines our city and our nation’s capital.”

Importantly, that sentiment finds itself in the rules: The applicable standards and guidelines insist that an addition be compatible with the heritage building. What does it mean to be compatible? The guidelines tell us “an appropriate balance must be struck between mere imitation of the existing form and pointed contrast, thus complementing the historic place in a manner that respects its heritage value.” A balance between imitation and contrast.

The contrast part of this proposed addition has been achieved. Now what is needed is that the addition acknowledge the existing form – the château itself. While this is a rational test with objective parameters, I would put the challenge in emotive terms.

We want to feel that the addition loves the Château Laurier as much as we do. We have watched the sunset from Wilfrid’s Terrace; we have sat on a blanket in Major Hill’s Park admiring the majesty of the buildings around us; we have biked along the river pathways looking up at this romantic castle-like piece of our heritage. We want the addition to respect its progenitor, to acknowledge the history, the lore, the stories and the people for whom the Château Laurier has been synonymous with Ottawa.


Before us is an exciting opportunity to replace an unsightly parking garage with a new addition to the building at the core of our civic identity. We need to be receptive to this new chapter of the Château Laurier as told by an architectural perspective of today, not 1908, or 1928.

We cannot have as an objective that everyone will agree with all of the ways in which this chapter is written. There will be story elements, plot lines and phrases that we will each respond to differently. As a mature and sophisticated city, we need to be open to creative interpretation. Yet, while we should be prepared to be challenged, we should not settle for something that we feel falls short of the standards we have to guide us.

Between rejecting this application outright and approving it as is, the city’s Built Heritage sub-committee recommended last week that the applicant continue to work with city heritage staff on: meaningfully increasing the use of limestone, sculpting and recessing the north façade, and finding more architectural expression that relates to the existing château. These conditions are consistent with the ideas and responses to the current version that are common among many members of the public, and architects from across the country, who have taken the time to provide their thoughts.

Our shared goal is respect for the heritage rules in place, while our shared hope is that our grandchildren love the addition in 100 years as much as we love the château today.

Tobi Nussbaum is councillor for Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward and the chair of the Built Heritage sub-committee. This is an edited version of his remarks to the committee earlier this week.)

Editor’s Note: The issue will be considered by Ottawa Council’s planning committee on Tuesday June 26 at 9:30 a.m.

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