In architecture, medieval is better than modern

How many events have I endured at the Ottawa Congress Centre? They blur together for various reasons including that it’s a hideous venue. But if you tear it down, please don’t replace it with something worse.

Like the proposed replacement shown on the front page of Tuesday’s Citizen. Architecture is in a glass and steel box nowadays, capable only of endless variations on one building that should never have been built except as a warning. So if you didn’t see that picture, close your eyes and try to imagine it.

Exactly. First floor set back behind those wretched pillars called “pilotis,” steel and blue-green glass, structural members emphasized, minimal decoration, severe inhumane spaces. Horrible to look at and worse to be in. There is another way.

In 1966 Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture bravely defied the triumphant modernist maxim “Less is more,” saying too often “Less is a bore.” Maybe you didn’t read the book. But you live in the city. Besides, the nation’s capital is supposed to be a showcase, yet the people in charge have made a dog’s breakfast of the downtown. So we hicks have a right to be heard demanding better.

The Citizen article quoted Congress Centre board chair Jim Durrell that they’d considered moving out to LeBreton Flats but the current site was just too good. He meant too convenient to the canal, Parliament and the Rideau Centre. But don’t stop there. As the Citizen said, one attraction of the proposed replacement would be a splendid top floor view of the Parliament Buildings.

Great. Not just a famous Ottawa landmark, they are among the most beautiful buildings in all of Canada. So look at them. Really look. Now suppose you were building a major facility nearby. Get any ideas for a suitable style? Hint: The Chateau Laurier has a mediaeval feel. Another hint: The neoclassical White House and Congress are gloriously echoed in the Washington Mall monuments. Heeeeey. We could be onto something here. And I’m in luck redesigning Ottawa because I prefer Gothic even to neoclassical.

I recently suggested this approach to Russ Mills, the National Capital Commission chair. Suppressing sudden headache symptoms, he asked if I really thought the mayor’s office should be in a castle. Yes. Yes I do. I want council meetings in the Great Hall and the mayor in a turret. I want a building suited to Ottawa. The current City Hall has no “Ottawa feel” and could be anywhere. But it shouldn’t.

Robert Venturi rightly scorns “Plop architecture,” where buildings don’t even try to accommodate themselves to their surroundings, geographical or architectural. The design in Tuesday’s Citizen makes one concession to the actual shape of the road access, the curved corner. Other than that, Plop. This trite glass building could as easily be in Toledo, Tokyo or Timmins. Forget the cult of the artist as genius on the purity of whose vision nothing should intrude. A major building should enhance its surroundings and be enhanced by them, not ignore or defile them.

Yes, yes, artistic renditions of the proposed building positively gleamed. Weirdly, in fact, since its western facade reflected the same midday sun busy rising in the pink eastern sky, thanks to a cheesy software effect I replicated in two minutes on an old picture of a beat-up birdhouse. It’s cute, but it doesn’t mean we should put my birdhouse on Colonel By Drive.

Beware also what happens when the shine is off. As American architect Joseph Giovannini recently warned, “Something about modernist buildings keeps them from aging with grace. They do not look better patinated by time, nor more picturesque when barnacled with accretions. Their purity does not accept the accidental event that might add character on a traditional building.” Exactly unlike the Parliament Buildings.

Now let’s take Venturi inside. The current Congress Centre is indeed an awkward venue. But we need to understand what’s wrong so we don’t repeat it. Complexity and Contradiction notes another weakness of modernist architecture, its tendency to over-simplification, to “either-or” not “both-and.” Its spaces, intentionally, only do one thing. That’s bad.

The new centre must, of course, handle large events, such as political conventions, comfortably. But it should also work for smaller events. I don’t have a blueprint in my back pocket. But if we’re paying architects large fees it’s to solve difficult problems of site, function and aesthetics in satisfying ways. Really. I’m not joking.

So ditch the glass and steel and cheap graphical enhancements, and build us a convention castle.

Correction: Last week I misstated the party affiliation of NDP MP Yvon Godin.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]