By considering factors and environments of the past, present and future, a set of strong principles has been established to guide the development of the House of Commons requirements.
institution, Canada’s Parliament has its own distinct history. Much of
this history — and the essential elements of our democratic system — are
reflected in the architecture and design of the Parliament Buildings.
When Canada became a country in
1867 under the terms of the British North America Act, the focus of the
celebrations was on Parliament Hill.2
The new Parliament and government buildings, designed in High Victorian
Gothic Revival style, were just nearing completion in Ottawa and the
forecourt was a perfect place for public gatherings.
The designs of the Centre Block closely followed the British precedent. Continuity and tradition have always played a significant role in the workings of Parliament, perhaps because people have realized that democratic institutions are not only important but also fragile.4
As with the Westminster model,
the 1867 layout provided a clear hierarchy of space. At the heart of the
Centre Block were the two Chambers — the Senate and the House of Commons
— where Government and Opposition Members faced each other across
central aisles. Next in the hierarchy were committee rooms and
facilities for Officers and Members of Parliament. Particular attention
was given to providing logical patterns of access for the public and the
media. A reporters’ gallery overlooked the Chamber, and the public had
direct access to the Chamber galleries and the 24 committee rooms.
Accommodation pressures were evident almost immediately. Canada was growing quickly.5 The number of Parliamentarians increased proportionately, as did pressures to increase the number of staff. By the 1880s, the buildings were crowded, even though all available space in basements and attics had been pressed into use.As government’s roles and responsibilities expanded, Members required additional office space. To ease space pressures, departmental functions were gradually moved out of the Centre Block.6 Growing government departments continued to occupy the East and West Blocks and, despite an addition to the West Block, more space was still required. The Langevin Block was built for that purpose on the south side of Wellington Street in the Second Empire style of its urban neighbours without trying to compete with the Gothic Revival identity of the Hill.
pressures, the logic of the original designs remained evident. The
Parliamentary Precinct was a clearly defined enclave, set within a
larger Crown land preserve extending from Bank Street on the west to
Sussex Street on the east and Wellington Street on the south. Majors
Hill Park extended the landscape of Parliament Hill to the east side of
the Rideau Canal. Links were also established outside the Precinct, to
the estate of the Governor General at Rideau Hall and to federal
parklands that were being developed throughout the city. The romantic
style and setting of these federal projects were notably different from
the classicism and formality of the government buildings in Washington,
The early years of the 20th century were turbulent for the Parliamentary Precinct. In 1907, plans to expand the Precinct eastward were undermined when a key parcel of land was purchased by the Grand Trunk Railway to build the Château Laurier Hotel. Soon after, the Daly Building site was sold to private interests. Forced to look west for expansion, the government began to expropriate houses and commercial properties west of Bank Street and to buy up property to the south along Elgin Street. This further blurred the boundaries between Crown and Town and upset the balance between official (government) and unofficial (civic) Ottawa.
In 1916 the Centre Block burned to the ground, reducing to ruins one of the key elements of federal identity. The axial orientation of the reconstructed Centre Block diminished the traditional view of the Precinct as a picturesque enclave.8
Departmental accommodation in
this period became increasingly haphazard, with little input from
Parliamentarians on the urban development surrounding the Hill. Private
sector interests put up speculative high rise buildings on Sparks and
Queen Streets, and leased office space to the government.
The period from the late 1920s
to the late 1960s saw a return of some semblance of order and
consistency to the development of both the Parliamentary Precinct and
the larger governmental presence within the city.
A few years later, a new
Supreme Court building was built. Although the building was designed in
a more modern style than the Parliament Buildings, its high-pitched
copper roof maintained the federal identity. Additional government
accommodation was provided on the south side of Wellington Street, in
buildings more in line with their urban neighbours. Once again, there
was an emphasis on maintaining a separation between the north and south
sides of Wellington Street.
In the early 1960s, the pressures
on Parliamentary accommodation were addressed by converting the West
Block from a government building to one for use by Parliamentarians. Use
of the West Block maintained the logical patterns of access and
circulation on the site, reinforcing the identity of the Parliamentary
Recent years have seen a return to the confusion and contested boundaries of the early 20th century.
In the 1970s, because of accommodation pressures on the Hill, Parliamentary activities were moved south of Wellington with the conversion of the Metropolitan Life Building (Wellington Building) for House of Commons use. This blurring of boundaries and confusion about the relationship of the Parliamentary Precinct to the city continued with the purchase and lease of additional space for Parliamentary use south of Wellington Street.
At the same time, the approach to departmental accommodation became less controlled. Once again, private sector interests began to put up speculative high rise developments, which were then leased to the government. The only major government initiative during this period was the construction of large office complexes in Hull.
In 1973, the Department of Public Works expropriated all the land
south of Parliament Hill, between Wellington and Sparks Streets. The
intent was to create a "South Block," which would provide
Parliamentarians with permanent accommodation south of Wellington
Street. However, outstanding questions of Parliamentary identity, the
distinction between Crown and Town and delineation of a clear
Parliamentary Precinct were not clearly addressed.
B. Current and Future Considerations
Today, the dramatic site and strong architecture of the Parliament Buildings set them apart and provide a constant reminder to Members of Parliament and to all Canadians of the responsibility vested in our Parliamentary system.
The institutions of Parliament
and their setting form a whole. Together, they represent a melding of
contemporary Canadian democracy, with the culture, heritage and history
of our people. It is understandable that Canadians and Parliamentarians
would want a comprehensive approach to preserving the Parliamentary
Many of the issues that have arisen over the years remain unresolved today and are likely to escalate over the coming years. The world has changed dramatically since the Parliament Buildings were built. Planning and renovation of the buildings has not kept pace with these changes. Current and future pressures include:
Steps in the Right Direction
Preliminary steps have been taken to address some of the more serious problems. Precinct-wide information technology projects are in progress. Repairs are under way to address the deterioration of the buildings. A landscape plan has been initiated to recover a more appropriate setting. Current renovations of the Justice Building will provide additional space for Members, adding to facilities currently available in the Confederation Building. The possibility of formally extending the Parliamentary Precinct west from Bank Street to Kent Street is being explored.
The important issue of
long-term planning is now recognized as a priority, not only for
Parliamentarians but also for the institution of Parliament itself, as a
defining presence within the urban realities of the Ottawa/Hull region.
C. Guiding Principles
The following principles are derived from design and planning concepts that shaped the original Parliament Buildings and should guide the development of accommodation in the Parliamentary Precinct over the next 25 years. All renovation and development of the Parliament Precinct should ensure:
"[…] the architecture of parliamentary buildings and the design and contents of parliamentary chambers make three contributions to political culture: they perpetuate the past, they manifest the present and they condition the future."7
M. Trépanier, Parks Canada
The Langevin Block was built in the 1880s to house government departments.
The New York Times
On February 3, 1916 the Centre Block burned to the ground.
Photo credit unknown
The new Centre Block with its tall Peace Tower creates a more axial orientation on the Hill.
Service d'aménagement de la capitale nationale, 1950
The Confederation and Justice buildings, built in the late 1920s, early 1930s to house government departments, were designed to complement the architectural style of the Precinct.
"The architectural design of the proposed new buildings should be in harmony and not in contrast. They should be planned to have […] vigorous silhouettes, steep roofs, pavilions and towers, never competing with, but always recalling the present group."10
Holt Report, 1915