As I was going through this Twitter thread by Alex Bozikovic on the “Château Laurier battle,” I came across a great line by Robert Wright: “We cannot recreate the past only parody it.” I told him I was going to steal it, but here I am giving him credit.
The controversy in Ottawa stems from the fact that a number of people believe that a modern addition to the Fairmont Château Laurier (which was constructed between 1909 and 1912) amounts to heresy.
Instead, the addition should be designed to match the “Château style” that already exists. There should be no change. As Alex put it, “people want Disneyland.”
We’ve had this very same debate come up on some of our projects, where people — but notably, not the city — have asked us to replicate something that was constructed in the 1800’s using labor and material techniques that no longer exist.
This is where Robert’s line comes in.
Architecture is a reflection of the cultural milieu in which it was designed and built, which is one of the reasons why we sometimes preserve old buildings. They communicate to us a particular moment in time.
The reason architects, designers, and planners so often respond — negatively that is — to Disneyland-type architecture, is that it lacks that same authenticity. It’s only a simulacra.
It’s for this reason that one of Ontario’s “eight guiding principles in the conservation of built heritage properties” is, in fact, legibility:
“New work should be distinguishable from old. Buildings or structures should be recognized as products of their own time, and new additions should not blur the distinction between old and new.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be respectful of the past. Five of the eight guiding principles include the word “respect” in the title. There should be lots of that.
But we would be fooling, and cheating, ourselves if we believed we could mimic the past with any justice. We cannot recreate the past only parody it.