How to remodel a quite satisfactory monumental complex to assert a dimension of capital? This is the question that Ottawa asked itself at the start of the twentieth century, between British control and national aspirations.
Following the 1867 Constitution Act, the Canadian Confederation supported the creation of transcontinental railways – infrastructures that contributed to the development of gigantic spaces. This construction of a federal entity had already given itself from 1859 an architectural emblem, with the Parliament buildings. These were made to designs by an English immigrant, Thomas Fuller (1823-1898), in a Victorian Gothic Revival style. However, the place – which suffered from complications to the point that other builders were called to the rescue – could not compete with the strong synthesis of the United Kingdom new Parliament in London, recently erected by Charles Barry (1795-1860) and Augustus Pugin (1812-1852). Because Fuller did not have the same technical and creative abilities, as his other setbacks at the New York Capitol in Albany later proved.
Here he had to leave the work in progress because of serious structural problems, and the completion entrusted to a team led by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). The latter's better training, at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts, enabled him to have a better career – developing a strong national variant of neo-Gothic. Fuller practiced in Canada a Victorian Gothic Revival mainly continuing the experiments of the beginning of his century; Richardson saw Gothic forms as an instrument to serve the invention of American culture. Following the Albany scandal, Fuller retreated for good to Canada – where he ended his career as the Dominion’s chief architect. Despite its quickly outdated appearance, its Canadian Parliament nevertheless managed to unite public opinion around a collective symbol majestically occupying this beautiful site above the cliff and the Ottawa River.
Nevertheless, the Federal Hill facilities gradually showed their limits. This prompted the government to initiate in 1906 a new competition for a ministerial complex adjoining the existing buildings. The Maxwell brothers, Edward (1867-1923) and William (1874-1952), based in Montreal, were laureates with a fairly horizontal project of a reasonable scale, between an update of English Tudor Gothic and French symmetry – the youngest being precisely trained at the Beaux-Arts Ecole.
However, these plans were quickly abandoned, due to budgetary reasons and political disagreements. Instead, the Maxwell brothers built in 1908 the Saskatchewan Legislative Building – according to a more conventional neoclassicism, while shining in the "Château style" of their beautiful homes, stations, or hotels – in particular their extension around 1920 of the Château Frontenac in Quebec, completing the initial building begun at the end of the 19th century by their New York colleague Bruce Price (1845-1903). Thus the central tower of the Maxwells powerfully synthesized the French Gothic heritage with the American spirit of skyscrapers.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the erection of the Chateau Laurier in 1909 sparked controversy over the Chief Dominion Architect service weakness. This opulent hotel gave rise to conflicts between the influential sponsors of the Grand Trunk Railway, so much so that the original architect, a New Yorker, was replaced by the Montrealer George Allen Ross (1878-1946) – also trained at the Beaux-Arts Ecole, and skilled practitioner of the hotel program across Canada for the same railway organization. However, with its vast volume of castle-like appearance, the Chateau Laurier threatened federal efforts from the outset. Now all other monumental development on the eastern flank of Parliament Hill was blocked.
This, therefore, required a more energetic architectural response, occupying the western part of the edge of the plateau. Another competition in 1913! Not to put off by the abandonment of their previous plans, the Maxwells returned to the running, this time proposing three separate buildings framing an esplanade. More monumental, the whole balanced classical masses and Gothic elements, a high tower in the center with a clock serving as a civic signal. John Lyle (1872-1945), another Canadian trained in Paris, sent a very Beaux-Arts project, denoting his experience of the genre in New York before moving to Toronto.
This consequent competition also attracted active builders in the United Kingdom. Thus, Scotsman Thomas Moodie (1874-1948), after having tried his luck in South Africa for the railways, proposed a compact edifice, with a slender central tower quite religious in appearance. Here the assimilation of modernized neo-Gothic by the Scottish variant of the Art and Crafts movement served as an aesthetic framework. Renowned for his sober country homes, Charles Voysey (1857-1941) strangely made with this competition perhaps his only attempt to establish himself in the realm of public architecture – without changing his simplified approach to vernacular Gothic! Despite their quality, all these proposals were actually swords thrown in the water.
Because the government had previously requested the services of Aston Webb (1849-1930) for a preliminary design. With its Victoria and Albert Museum, its remodeling of Buckingham Palace and its Admiralty Arch, Webb was then among the most influential British builders. So he superbly ignored the contextual approach, envisioning a vast monumental complex in a Wrenaissance flavor derived from the 17th century Greenwich Naval Hospital, especially in the visually responding domes. The whole thing would have miniaturized Fuller's Victorian Gothic buildings, imposing an irremediable aesthetic contrast.
Decidedly disappointed by competitions, the Canadian authorities hesitated over what to do next, then consulting American town planner Edward Bennett (1874–1954). Also a graduate from the Beaux-Arts Ecole, he was among the most ardent players in the City Beautiful movement to improve the American towns appearance and functioning. Nevertheless, Bennett severely judged the projects received, including those of Webb, arguing for a stylistic harmony echoing the existing neo-Gothic ensembles via "marked silhouettes, sloping roofs, pavilions and towers". Unfortunately, his work on the urban fabric remained again mostly a forgotten paper amidst a hill of similar ideas.
Soon an accident upset this stagnant situation. In fact, a fire in the central parliamentary building in 1916 forced to cope. Only the cathedral-like circular library at the back escaped the blaze. At first, it was thought easier to rebuild identically. But the wish to keep the charred walls gave way to the evidence: reconstruction was inescapable.
The desire to quickly restore this symbolic facility swept aside the hypothesis of yet another competition, especially in the midst of the world war. This posed the problem of the builders to be appointed. The unfortunate participants of the previous consultations seem to have been excluded from the outset – to avoid any accusation of favoritism? While in Europe the conflict devoured so many lives, in Canada the Gothic Wars continued behind the scenes! A parliamentary committee chose John Pearson (1867-1940) and Jean-Omer Marchand (1872-1936). An English-speaking active in Toronto, where he signed several university buildings, the first continued British trends in Canada. The second, a French-speaking from Montreal who completed his training at the Beaux-Arts Ecole, cooperated with Quebec Catholic circles. Unprecedented, their tandem resembles a temporary alliance, animated by diplomatic motives to satisfy two linguistic communities – with notoriously difficult relations. Could such a Judgment of Solomon give rise to good architectural results? Against all odds, this duo found a decent balance.
Marchand and Pearson, therefore, remained largely faithful to Fuller's work, using the same materials. But they reworked the plan, the facades and masses. These architects doubled the size of the assembly rooms and offices, achieving a practical grid organization – Beaux-Arts sense of the plan brought by Marchand? – with four large meeting spaces and a more majestic lobby. The style is mostly in an ecclesiastical neo-Gothic tone. Four turrets were added to the rear of the complex, to better balance the mass of the library with the facade tower. This one was rebuilt according to a much more slender design and a better formal purism than the one which disappeared in the flames, creating a strong civic signal, where the religious airs and a monumental clock seems a Canadian cousin of London's Big Ben.
The completion of the New Central Building in 1927 narrowly preceded the Westminster Statute, which enshrined Canada's legislative sovereignty – now having a striking architectural symbol. While the use of neo-Gothic was certainly still dependent on English culture, the lines were nonetheless moving towards an Americanized evolution.
This ambivalence was expressed in two other massive additions to Parliament Hill. Despite Marchand and Pearson efforts to improve the Parliament's functioning, the bureaucracy increasing spatial requirements soon demanded other additions, on a larger scale. As early as 1928, the Confederation and Justice Buildings were begun, under the direction of the Dominion chief architect, Thomas W. Fuller (1865-1951) – son of the Parliament's first author. These constructions use the site envisaged by the projects of the previous aborted competitions. Their volume and height led to the use of metal structures, hidden behind a stone facing. Structurally, this responded to American skyscrapers. Stylistically, this was done via a globally soberer neo-Gothic. This despite the castle-like appearance of false machicolations, high roofs covered with copper, and turreted towers... These two buildings resolved the imbalance created by the Chateau Laurier on the other side of Parliament Hill. However, the continuation of this caster style earned Fuller scathing criticism, with the press vilifying his work as totally old-fashioned and even childish.
This icy reception perhaps led to the aesthetic rupture of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1938. There, Ernest Cormier (1885-1980) – another graduate of the Beaux-Arts Ecole – designed a sort of French 17th century castle, nevertheless modernizing the facades in a more Art Deco spirit. Actually, its tall copper roofs were a concession made to Ottawa’s new chief urban planner, Frenchman Jacques Gréber (1882-1962) – who had previously worked on the Philadelphia Parkway. Taking into account the monumental context, Gréber had considered that the Gothic sloping roofs should be still used, while also calling for the use of freer forms and clear stones.
Abandoned projects stumbled over various indecisions, and the accomplishments alternated between aesthetic discord and attachment to the existing. Although the neo-Gothic parliamentary ensembles pursued in the twentieth century an anachronistic architectural vision, they were an Anglo-Canadian response to the successive transformations of the American Capitol. If Washington also remodeled itself according to a City Beautiful Beaux-Arts logic, in Ottawa other professionals also under the influence of the same model sought a different symbolism in Gothic forms.
There, the memory of medieval roofs and spires did not stem from nostalgia alone, but also from the desire to reaffirm an organic link between European origin and its Canadian extension. In this strange assemblage, the conflicts of forms participated in the invention of a sharp urban chimera, aiming to bind distinct peoples in the same fragile communion.