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Brave New House Now in Session

The artist’s rendering shown illustrates the floor of the new House of Commons located in what was once the outdoor courtyard of the West Block. The new public visitor’s gallery is located above while the speaker’s chair is located next to the Canadian flag. The interpretation also shows the glass and steel roof above and the carefully restored natural stone façade; sections of the copper roof of the original West Block and several of the remediated stained-glass windows. Artistic rendering courtesy AFGM Architects.

“First we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Churchill’s assessment may very well be correct when it comes to our new House of Commons [HOC]; the spectacular new facility shown above may in fact play an important role in helping to shape Canada’s future.

The comprehensive rehabilitation of the West Block [WB] building on Parliament Hill with its new glass roof and meticulous restoration of the historic façade manages to incorporate elements of the future while embracing our past. The following article describes how we have managed to create a building that “speaks louder than words”.

  • Imagine yourself as a newly elected member of Canada’s 43rd Parliament. Taking your seat on Friday, October 5 you will be sitting in the newly completed HOC facility; once the outdoor courtyard of the WB building, where government workers often took lunch outside in the garden decades ago. 

Over your head will be a spectacular steel & glass roof while the walls around you are formed by the original outdoor façade meticulously cleaned one block at a time. Watching from above are visitors in the new public gallery with access via an innovative underground entrance.

After you have time to master the basics of thumping on your desk you will likely have time to wonder how you got there – according to “Dief the Chief,” by Monday you’ll be wondering how the other 337 members managed to get there!

  • Queen Victoria did not choose our capital at random: she was operating on advice from Governor Geneneral Head who explained that the “Dominions” were unable to choose and if she chose Toronto or Montreal it would cause “no end of problems”, recommending instead a lumber town near the Chaudière rapids on the Ottawa River called Bytown widely viewed as an “outback”, without paved roads & a population of 7,800. The buildings were to be located on a site that was then referred to as ‘Barracks Hill.’

Fabricated by entirely hand on site, the amount of natural stone used in their construction totaled 32 million pounds, transported 14 miles from Bells Corners using horse-drawn vehicles.

  • Canada was destined to grow quickly, however no one could have foreseen that we would grow to the extent where we would have citizens from over 200 nations and a GNP of $1.7 trillion as we do today.

After identifying a suitable site more than 2,000 skilled tradesman moved forward to fabricate one of the finest seats of government on the planet.

Parliamentary Privilege

Over the past 150 years our venerated “Houses on the Hill” have managed to inspire an enduring emotional attachment for Canadians that is without equal, becoming our collective “parliamentary privilege”, as indeed it has remained.

Parliament Hill, visited by 3 million people a year, has been the focus of the most ambitious repurposing project in our history. The House of Commons is based on the UK model, their arrangement is predicated by the British North American Act and by our Constitution.

Photograph shows the West block building under construction with a crane and scaffolding in place to protect historic elements. The section in the foreground shown during excavation now contains the new underground entrance to the House of Commons. Sections of what is known as the Parliamentary Precinct including the Supreme Court justice building are shown in the rear. Photograph courtesy AFGM Architects.

Brave New House

Canada’s new HOC, located in the WB qualifies as brave for several important reasons. If and when you take the opportunity to visit the impressive new public visitors’ gallery you will enter the facility via a completely redesigned underground foyer and entrance. The roof above is fabricated from glass, another sophisticated innovation possible as a result of our ability to “simulate” how buildings will look and feel like prior to construction using computers.

  • Forging the Future: Very few edifices indeed can be said to inspire the intense emotional attachment like those evoked by our Parliament Buildings. In many ways they are entirely unique in this regard. 

For example, every morning a line up begins to form before the sun comes up, citizens patiently waiting for a guided tour of Parliament Hill. Undoubtedly this is a direct result of a strong emotional attachment to the site & buildings that is hard to put into words.

When the Peace Tower burned to the ground in 1916, members of the Ottawa Fire Department, who worked without rest throughout the night, reported that the local citizens who rushed to help on the bucket brigades had tears streaming down their faces.

The HOC innovative glass roof illustrates the fenestration of the future whereby a high priority is given to the value of natural light, providing great benefits to the well-being of building occupants.

The 3-storey WB is the oldest of the parliamentary buildings located on the “Hill” – built in 3 phases completed in 1906 to house the:

  • Postal Service, Public Works
  • Agriculture & Fisheries Departments and to provide space for Members of Parliament

Workers have now finished installing tall, tree like steel columns that support the new glass roof, while at same time the WB’s courtyard has been transformed. Part of the estimated $863-million  modernization of this historic building involved building new basement levels to house HVAC systems, committee rooms, court-yards, lobbies & viewing areas. 

Shown in this photograph is the new House of Commons during a dry run to test acoustics and new broadcasting facilities. This new interim House of Commons facility will serve the government while updated facilities are remediated in the Peace Tower. Photograph courtesy AFGM Architects.

Building improvements include:

  • State-of-the-art broadcasting facilities
  • Improvements to HVAC systems
  • Security, acoustics, automated systems &
  • Improved accessibility & wayfinding for the public & media. 

Great care was taken to disassemble, remediate/clean and then re-assemble the heritage natural stone façade in its original configuration.

The plans to rehabilitate the entire Parliamentary “Precinct” will cost over $2-billion over the next 10 years if the project meets its budget expectations.

Other improvements on buildings contained in the “Parliamentary Precinct” will help define the character of Parliament Hill and help preserve the heritage character of the buildings & site.

The construction of Canada’s Parliament 150 years ago adopted a “fast track” approach and formal government reports said it was proceeding with “great haste”, however, they utilized local materials with great skill. The government appointed not only a Clerk of the Works but also an Official Photographer and as a result we know virtually every detail of their fabrication which employed hundreds of engineers, architects, over 2000 skilled tradesmen, legions of soldiers, numerous government employees and over 1200 horses.

All of the buildings on Parliament Hill, which have been entirely updated to meet modern expectations, were originally constructed with what can only be called a “siege mentality” because we remained constantly vigilant regarding the possibility of an invasion our neighbours to the south.  As a result there are many sealed tunnels under the site installed to enable escape in the event of a siege, secret staircases and several “in situ” incarceration facilities meant to accommodate prisoners of war in the event of military hostilities.

The buildings were constructed with remarkable attention to detail, top-quality local materials & exceptional craftsmanship. In fact, George Brown wrote to P.M. John A. McDonald stating that,

“The buildings are magnificent; the style, extent, site & workmanship are all surpassingly fine. To say the truth there is nothing in London, Paris or Washington approaching them. They are 500 years ahead of their time.”

However, given the fact that austerity was mentioned in the design competition for the buildings, we may be surprised to learn that the buildings included such features as;

  • Slate lined ventilation ducts.
  • 18 different varieties of exotic stone and marble.
  • Steam heating systems, gargantuan in scale.
  • The latest in what were known as “water closets”.
  • 1200 windows & doors.
  • 400 hand carved gargoyles.
Laser-Clean-Gargoyle
This photograph shows a natural stone and carefully carved gargoyle receiving a well-deserved facelift after hundred and 50 years in service. The technician shown in the rear is utilizing a hand held laser to clean the stone which will be carefully replaced in its original position. Photograph courtesy AFGM Architects.

However, in spite of the remarkable elements, they could boost of a single telephone, one elevator operated by a uniformed government employee and no air conditioning.

Construction professionals at the time commented that the structures demonstrated a “beauty of outline and truthful nobility of detail” without the use of “fictitious ornamentation”.

In hindsight, we now recognize that a functioning democracy for a country of our size takes a great deal of space and in the early years there were often 4 government workers in each office.

Today our government is interactive in many respects and many activities are online or in some cases televised. In addition, when the original buildings were constructed, very little attention was given to security as we know it today.

Today state-of-the-art security improvements are now functional and careful attention has been given to acoustics, lighting, wayfinding, accessibility, energy conservation and a long list of other environmental factors.

Powerful emotional attachments typically unleashed by our Parliament Buildings typically include:

  • Pride and gratitude
  • Courage, decisiveness and motivation – implying enthusiasm to move forward, suggesting fortitude and in some cases bravery – as well as tolerance
  • Peacefulness: an emotional state that can typically include serenity, fulfillment and awareness

In part, the emotional attachments: pride mixed with recognition and acknowledgment with regard to our collective resilience and fortitude that is combined with tolerance.

Parliamentary Privilege

Typically, when we use the word “privilege” we often imply an entitlement and may use the word to describe a source of pride and satisfaction.

For Canadian citizens, our pride and sense of ownership applies very well to our time-honored Parliament buildings. Canada’s Parliament buildings stand out distinctly not only from other democracies around the world but in many other ways as well.

The buildings embody our right and privilege to not only congregate, pass and re-enforce the rules of law but also protest when occasion arises; this in itself is a privilege that most nations can probably only imagine. In Canada we collectively claim these as part of our rights and privileges.

The buildings themselves are more like monuments than structures in the usual sense of the word.  Even to the governments surprise in the 1950s when they went so far as to suggest, when office space for government departments became critical, that they replace them with “modern” buildings – the public outcry was such that they were forced to change their plans – quickly.

In the past Canada’s HOC operated in a rather dark and forbidding atmosphere; it was mostly traditional and in many ways quite modest.

Our new HOC is located in an area which takes full advantage of greatly increased natural daylighting and rather than being forbidding, is filled with stainless steel, glass and completely modernized to current expectations.

If indeed Churchill was correct that buildings can “shape” us, although it won’t happen overnight, this new atmosphere will help us in becoming a truly independent nation, standing on our own feet as it were – no longer a country where “modesty rules” but a nation that embraces the future.

The fact is, Canadians are very well-equipped to meet this challenge and the sophisticated modernization of the HOC represents for Canadian citizens a portent of things to come.

It does indeed require a certain amount of bravery to move forward – even if it’s one step at a time. So it is with our Parliament buildings; they have withstood the test of time and so have we; the pioneers, the soldiers, the peacekeepers and from all indications – we will continue to do so.