A right royal home for Canada's head of state


LISA ROCHON Saturday, November 1, 2008

"The creations of the 12 recipients of the Governor-General's Medal in Architecture make us appreciate the degree to which Canadian architects have transformed the places where we live, work, share culture and come together into a celebration of beauty and human genius." - Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor-General of Canada

OTTAWA -- We don't do arrogance well. We don't do parlour games, with the exception of mah-jong, and are hard put to pronounce Mr. Darcy with the right amount of down-our-nose inflection. We imagine all Londoners and anybody attending Oxford to be the aristocracy. Though we are excessively polite, we lack beautiful table manners. The Russians, the Spanish, the French, the British, the Americans - they were born into a vast geography of aristocrats and peasants, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, and they revel in the tension, the injustice, the cleavage of it all. Colonizing powers have always smiled upon pomp and circumstance and the deafening sound of soldiers on the march.

Us? We produce bush poets and gory myths about ravens. During the snow-encrusted months, we travel deep into the mind, and then sing and write and design as if our lives depended on it.

Which brings me to Rideau Hall, and why I am so thankful for it. Walk past the main gates with the sensuous tulips and fleur-de-lis cast in iron, part of a heritage fence undergoing a painstaking restoration that runs for 1 ? kilometres around the vice-regal park. Stand under the shadow of the Edwardian building with its entrance rendered in rough and pitted limestone. Consider the pediment, restored in 2007, which could be the largest one in the Commonwealth.

If you are lucky enough to have an invitation to enter, go immediately to the stunning ballroom of 1873, with its robin's egg walls and golden plasterwork. And you will see how Governor-General Michaëlle Jean has replaced, just a few months ago, the Jean Paul Lemieux painting of dour, half-frozen figures with a monumental work of audacity called Androgyny by the late Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau.

During a recent evening ceremony honouring the recipients of this year's Governor-General's Medal in Architecture, about 400 people gathered in the ballroom to celebrate the achievement of remarkable architects from across the country. For years, Adrienne Clarkson hosted an elegant luncheon to mark the occasion. But this year, for the first time, the awards took over an entire evening of pomp and circumstance.

A quartet of musicians announced the arrival of Her Excellency, who arrived with a flourish in a steel-grey gown. Each of the award-winning architects was escorted to the front of the ballroom by a Governor-General's Foot Guard. The award was delivered by the Governor-General, and then the designated architect spoke briefly on the winning project: the new life-shaping National Ballet School, or exhilarating new buildings at the University of Toronto and Trent University. Among other works of daring was a private home in Toronto and a West Vancouver community centre.

The architects stood next to Morriseau's spidery figures dancing on a yellow canvas, and posed for an official photograph with Jean. It was a rare immersion in civic grandeur - Canadian style.

Rideau Hall is Canada's last great civic station. Originally a stonemason's manor set on a vast estate on the fringes of Ottawa, it has accumulated a quirky and entirely charming patchwork of architectural styles and impulses. It represents an accretion of myriad sensibilities: making do, even indecision. It is the polar opposite of the grand, utopian civic buildings erected to much fanfare in Washington, Paris and London.

For 50 years, until the dawn of the 20th century, it was considered as mere temporary housing and otherwise unfit for our governors-general, some of whom were relatives of Queen Victoria. When the Parliament Buildings were being designed, a competition was held to create a proper government house at Nepean Point, where the National Gallery of Canada now stands. But politicians never wanted to commit the funds; and so, through 150 years, Rideau Hall has become a place that has known its share of leaks, overheated interiors and even the insult of Ikea bookshelves.

But, now. Now there is pride and recognition that this, too, could be called yours, too. In many ways, the Canadian mind is finally taking form in Rideau Hall.


Architect Bruce Haden, a partner with Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanists - and principal in charge of the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, located in the Canadian desert south of the Okanagan Valley in Osoyoos, B.C. - travelled from Vancouver to receive his award. Haden's mother travelled with him, and project architect Brady Duncan went up onstage with him.

It was fabulous to be there," said Haden. "The G-G was gracious, and she specifically pointed out to us that she had visited the building, and liked it very much. . . What I felt about the event was that there was a genuine sense of congeniality and inclusiveness."

Though 24 Sussex Drive is a wreck in dire need of renovation, the federal government has been dedicating enough money to the National Capital Commission to allow Rideau Hall to shine. There is comfort in that rare vote of confidence at a time when the Harper government has gutted incentives for the protection and preservation of heritage architecture. After all, Rideau Hall is a national historic site. Like 24 Sussex, it is a classified heritage building - the highest level of designation under the Federal Heritage Building Review Office. Between 1997 and 2007, about $35-million was spent on resurrecting it.

Even before that, back in 1988, among the many carefully managed projects was the renovation of the fabulous tent room, which was built a century ago as a slightly wonky indoor tennis court. The floors were vinyl tiles over wood, and the room was barn-like in structure. Lord Dufferin had innovated a way of inserting a mock tent with striped fabric inside the tennis court, and of covering makeshift tables with linens, glassware and tall vintage lamps to make for a charming encampment.

Ottawa architect John Cook, principal of the Ottawa-based Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects (another of this year's G-G winners, whose firm teamed up with Moriyama & Teshima Architects to design the compelling Canadian War Museum) formalized Dufferin's fantasy room by installing a custom-designed silk fabric with vice-regal stripes, and affixing it in billowing volumes from the ceiling. Sophisticated acoustic and sound equipment was installed behind the fabric walls. Two monumental chandeliers, measuring some 10 metres in diameter, were hoisted into the space. And now, 20 years later, another fabric is being ordered to replace the one that has aged and been dulled by fire retardant.

A former horse barn has been renovated for staff offices. And the Toronto landscape-architecture firm Janet Rosenberg + Associates has been hired to consider the public space at Rideau Hall's main entrance, including the possibility of a sheltering courtyard.

To formally celebrate greatness and individual achievement makes many of us uncomfortable in Canada - though those in attendance seemed ready to sleep over at Rideau Hall. For those who still fear having to swallow the bitter pill of snobbery, it's helpful to travel the gracious ceremonial route through a stand of 600 deciduous trees in Rideau Park: By the time you reach the front entrance, you may have found the courage to get over yourself. And to appreciate that a little pomp and circumstance goes a long way, for a very long time, feeding the fires that ignite the imagination.