Shame on the Hill

A massive renovation project shows the ugly side of Ottawa


Photograph by Blair Gable

The tulips were in fine form on Parliament Hill this week, blooms of red and white matching the flag snapping in the breeze atop the Peace Tower. Spring weather brought out a healthy crop of tour buses, too, marking the start of the busy season along what might be called the country’s main street. It’s no wonder the visitors flock: with its iconic copper-roofed architecture, bronze statues and monuments, Ottawa’s picturesque Wellington Street delivers a palpable sense of history in a stroll of only a few blocks.

But tourists are finding they must frame their snapshots carefully to avoid construction hoarding, scaffolding and shuttered buildings. It’s more than just inevitable upkeep in a historic precinct. Some of the unsightliness results from drawn-out political indecision over what to do with sensitive real estate. Some is the outward sign of tension over renovations among various branches of the government. That confusion recently drew sharp criticism from federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser. “We need to fix this,” she said, “and the longer it waits, the more the deterioration and the more it will cost.”

A visitor on foot doesn’t need to conduct an audit to recognize the problems. Start walking west from the landmark Chateau Laurier hotel and in only a few strides, you’re in front of the “Danger” sign, warning of construction inside, taped to the modern glass entrance of what was once the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Opened in 1992 as a branch of the National Gallery of Canada, the photo museum decamped in 2006 after a flood exposed structural problems. Last spring, the gallery announced it wasn’t moving back in, ever. Despite its inviting street entrance and visitor-friendly location by the Rideau Canal, the building is now being rehabilitated, not for some new public use, but as extra space for parliamentary committees.

Continue along Wellington over the canal, past Parliament’s intriguingly asymmetrical East Block, and you’re soon facing the soaring Peace Tower. It’s worth lingering for that first square-on view. Turn 180 degrees, however, and the spell is quickly broken. Directly across the street, in what is indisputably one of the nation’s choicest urban locations, stands the empty building that long served as the U.S. Embassy. It should be a delight, a bit of Washington-style neoclassical design to contrast with Parliament’s Gothic revival style. But the former embassy is surrounded by construction hoarding. It’s been that way since the Americans moved to their big new embassy on Sussex Drive in 1998.

A dozen years is a long stretch for such a prominent address to stand vacant. Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien had designated it as the home of a new National Portrait Gallery. After winning the 2006 election, however, the Conservative government scrapped that plan, announcing instead that nine cities would compete to host the federal portrait collection. In 2008, that idea was cancelled, too. So when will some other use be found for the lovely, deserted shell of the old embassy? “We’re in the planning stage to see if there’s a fit,” said a senior government official. “There’s no deadline on that.”

Might as well keep on walking. The next arresting sight is Parliament’s West Block, the subject of much of the auditor general’s attention in her wake-up-call report last month. Like the Centre Block and East Block, it’s a beauty—or, at least, would be if it weren’t for all the screening and scaffolding. The West Block is in an advanced state of decay. Public Works and Government Services Canada plans to empty it this fall, and embark on an extensive restoration. “Like a monster Lego kit, we’ll be taking it apart, assessing whether each stone needs to be repaired, or replaced,” says Robert Wright, the department’s executive director for major Crown projects. The daunting project is slated for completion in 2018.

And it’s only a piece of a larger puzzle. Once the West Block is finished, the plan is to empty the much larger Centre Block, which houses the Commons and Senate chambers, for an overhaul that’s scheduled to last until 2025. Likening the buildings to bodies, Wright says the West Block’s structural deterioration amounts to “massive skeletal issues” and the Centre Block’s electrical, heating and other system problems threaten “central nervous breakdown.” Several other major federal buildings nearby are being adapted to serve Parliament’s needs during long years of renovation. Asked what it will all cost, Wright says, “I don’t think that anything of substance or meaning can be put on the table.”

That uncertainty about multi-billion-dollar costs troubles Fraser, along with other aspects of the planning process. Just $55 million of a roughly estimated $800 million needed to restore the West Block has been approved. She blames the welter of federal players at the table—Public Works, the National Capital Commission, the House, the Senate, even the RCMP. Without a more streamlined decision-making process, the auditor general says “only limited progress can be made on the rehabilitation of the Parliament Buildings.” Spoiling the view for tourists is hardly her big worry. She flagged the risk of “complete failure” of systems in the long-neglected buildings.

The path to this dire point stretches back over decades. A long-term plan for the parliamentary precinct was approved in 1992. Signature upgrades have been finished since then, including fixing the Peace Tower’s masonry and fully restoring the spectacular Library of Parliament. But the blueprint keeps changing. A 25-year plan laid out in 2001 was substantially overhauled in 2007. Wright says that three-year-old strategy has proven more flexible and pragmatic. He points to innovative steps already being taken, like sending masons to the University of Calgary to learn how the West Block masonry walls can be remade to withstand earthquakes.

But long-time expert observers remain unconvinced the government is properly focused on turning Wellington Street into the showcase it should be. “They’re kind of struggling to have a strategy, but they stagger back and forth without a vision or a timetable,” says Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky, noted for his design and conservation work on the city’s heritage buildings, including the newly renovated and expanded Canadian Museum of Nature. Alex Rankin, another prominent Ottawa architect, who worked with the legendary Raymond Moriyama on the acclaimed Canadian War Museum, compared those key blocks of Wellington Street to a “nice smile, but, quite frankly, we’ve got teeth that are bad and teeth that are missing.”

Both Padolsky and Rankin point out that along with deteriorating and vacant structures, the Parliament Hill area features some gaps that cry out for new buildings. A few years ago, for instance, architects were asked to submit concepts for the underutilized land just west of the West Block, but the plan to build there was abandoned in 2005. The RCMP makes practical use of that prime location for screening vehicles being driven onto the Hill, under what looks, from the vantage point of the throngs on Wellington, like a sort of oversized, rusty carport. Sadly, it doesn’t appear entirely out of place.


Shame on the Hill

  1. Two billion dollars to renovate the Parliament Buildings, which in Ottawa dollars is three, four billion. The Skydome cost $400 million and much of that was overtime union labour. A modern 18,000 seat sport arena with luxury boxes costs about $200 – 250 million.

    Two billion dollars is too much. Tear the sucker down and replace it with modern office buildings which should cost no more than fifty million bucks. Alternatively, Canada's LAZY, LAZY media could get off their asses and investigate and report on the financial irregularities that are occurring here.

    Do you know how much the federal government pays for a mini-filing cabinet standing 30 inches high? A thousand bucks. You wouldn't pay twenty bucks for it at a garage sale. This is a news story; where is the media?

    • Canada does not have a great deal of historic architecture. We should do our best to preserve the little that we have.

      Furthermore, architecture is a powerful symbol of any country. For example, since the Chateau Frontenac hotel was built to serve tourists from abroad, its architecture is an intentional hybrid of French and British architecture, helping to represent this country to foreigners.

      To reduce the symbolic significance of such powerful artwork (yes, architecture is a form of art) to a "sucker" is, hopefully, an isolated opinion.

      • Is that so (about the Chateau Frontenac I mean)? Very interesting. I remember being struck by how unusual the building was, but apparently I didn't know enough to put my finger on it.

        • If I remember correctly (from my university days when I wrote an essay on the Chateau Frontenac), it was a hybrid of old French and Scottish castle styles. The facades from Scottish castles, and the steep roof and turrets from French castles.

          The supreme court building in Ottawa also has an unusually steep roof, which suggests this building was also designed as a nod to French and British architecture (although I never studied this building in depth, so don't take my word for this one…).

    • The Skydome cost $400 million and much of that was overtime union labour

      $570M actually and, if it were built today, the estimated cost would be $1 Billion. The new Yankee Stadium was 1.3 Billion and lets not forget the $1.6B Expo Stadium ran when it was finally paid off in 2006.

      Do you know how much the federal government pays for a mini-filing cabinet standing 30 inches high? A thousand bucks.

      This is because the FG filing cabinets, unlike the $100 tinfoil boxes you get at Staples these days, are actually expected to stand a chance of keeping people out.

      • II think what's lost here is just how expensive stone work is. Modern steel structures are like the cheap plastic Chinese crap we buy by comparison.

    • Harkness is right! Save the facade, tear the building down, rebould it
      with amazingly luxurious interior and it still wouldn't cost you 1 billion.

      Governments at all levels are starting to seem more
      and more corrupt with their 'external providers' contracts.

      Give me a billion dollars, and I'll find a way
      to save half of the starving children in Africa.

      • You'll hire and equip the mercenaries to assassinate the corrupt kleptocrat dictators AND install freedom-loving democracies in their stead? Wow. Cool. And for only a billion, too. But wait, the developed world unfairly keeps African agriculture rotting because trade barriers won't let anyone buy from them and all that "free rice" means nobody local will feel the need to buy from them either. You got any $ left over from your assassination plot to deal with the protectionist evil in the first world?

        Oh, and a pony, too? Please? If you've got any left, I really would love a pony. Thanks, Santa.

  2. What the government needs is a financial review of their projects. If a building cannot be repaired to todays standards for 50% of new construction it should be torn down. We do not need stunning architecture, we need functional, quality office buildings at the lowest possible cost. After all most of the people footing the bill will never see them.

    • Taxslave, I tip my hat to you. All them down-thumbers (with no particular attempt to rebut) tell me you are on the right track.

  3. As an architect, I'm glad John Geddes is bringing this subject to the public's attention. I hope he continues to stray from his political comfort zone, and write more articles on architecture.

    There are 2 problems related to costs. First, while masons might have been a dime a dozen back in the early 1900s, they have become a rare trade. Masons specialised in historic preservation are scarce these days.

    The second problem is the reality of existing infrastructure: Architects will assume, based on existing drawings, that a building was built in a certain way. But once the bricks are removed, there's a good chance the building was built in an unexpected way. This requires halting the work and changing strategies.

    Concerning scaffolding: This is a reality with all historic neighbourhoods. It won't be the first time tourists see scaffolding. Who hasn't been to Venice without seeing half of Piazza San Marco covered up, for example? It's simply a reality with older buildings.

    I look forward to Geddes' future articles about architecture. Keep 'em coming!

    • One more thing: I also sincerely doubt these buildings made it through the "Asbestos for Everyone!" school of mid 1900's government design that saw the material added to drywall by code as high level fire protection which likely makes any interior remodelling/additions/modifications a nightmare as well.

      This is one of the main reasons we no longer run NORAD from a hole in the ground on this side of the border.

    • Don't forget the third: finding the Masonry materials themselves when you need stone that's both solid/large enough and able to mix and match with existing materials that have been sitting exposed to the weather for a century or so is not cheap in and of itself either.

    • That's not to mention the styling. The original architect isn't alive, so reproducing his design styling is a massive undertaking.

      And then there's the nature of the material used which is not meant for areas with tremors up to 6 in size and the unstable shale stone ground that Ottawa is built on.

      The kind of things engineers were not aware of in early 20th century.

  4. You don't know what you've got till it's gone….

  5. I cannot believe the throw away mentality of some people these days.

    Canadians love to talk about culture and how we need to do more to preserve but when it comes to the actual investment everyone balks at the price tag.

    Three decades of different governments have not addressed this for fear of looking like they are wasting money and they are more worried about the perceived optics and losing power in the short term than realizing what a national embarrassment this has become.

    I completely agree with Mike514 in his assessment and what Orysia said. Replacing these national treasures with some modern and, no doubt, futt bugly new architecture would be a horrible mistake that we would regret in the future.

    How about we just can the CBC which claims to have a lock on culture (what a laugh!) and use that money for this instead? A heck of a lot more Canadians, tourists and international visitors would appreciate this culture more than what passes for culture on the CBC.

    Yes, some of us would not be around to see the finished product but I believe that future generations would really appreciate this and we should keep that in mind.

    • Way cool on sacking the Corpse, but, Annie, just how much should your kids be paying in principal and interest for these treasures? Is there NO price too high to lead us to conclude we should just start over?

  6. I hear that a good sea container goes for roughly $3K. No more than 200 of these to house all ministries and their offices. Outsource data collection and encryption to the Chinese and turn the Hill in to a homeless shelter……problem solved.

  7. If the architecture really means that much to Canadians, you should be able to take up a collection and gather enough in donations to cover the cost.

    If it doesn't, on the other hand, then the government probably shouldn't be deciding to spend our money on it.

    As always, if it's worth having, people will be willing to pay for it. Adding government apparatchiks into the mix merely obscures the connection by making it possible to force people to pay for what a few people think is worth having.

  8. I thought the "Shame on the Hill" was the french translation of the sign which is OBVIOUSLY wrong. It should have been: "Attention, travaux en cours". Juste une petite remarque qui m'a vraiment sauté aux yeux!


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