Intersection between original 1937 Bank Building and new Erickson addition (west side)
Nov.30.2013

Bank of Canada renewal plan stirs controversy

The complex at 234 Wellington St. is “a marvellous work of art,” says Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and of Heritage Montreal. Lambert was also director of planning for the Seagram Building, a New York City skyscraper built in 1958 and regarded as a modern masterpiece.

“How do we have a culture if every time there is a work that has some real character to it and really expresses so much of the society by one of our great artists, we change that and we don’t respect that?’ Lambert asks. “We have no history. We lose it.”

Arthur Erickson, an internationally acclaimed Canadian architect, designed two elegant glass towers that preserved the Bank’s original 1930s granite building as the centrepiece.

The east and west towers join the five-storey centre building by pedestrian bridges and a glass atrium. The atrium extends the full height of the towers and contains a garden court open to the public.

A tropical garden runs almost the length of the courtyard on the Sparks Street side and incorporates a reflecting pool. The slate floor gently dips down toward the water while West Coast beams span over it. The result is a low-scaled and intimate experience within a vast atrium.

The bank plans to remove the garden and close public access to the courtyard. Another dramatic change is to build three new structures — depicted in early concept drawings as glass pyramids — on the east plaza on Wellington Street. Inside the building, custom-designed office furniture will be replaced.

“This sounds lethal,” says Cornelia Oberlander, a high-profile Vancouver landscape architect whose projects include the garden at the National Gallery of Canada and who worked with Erickson on other projects. “You don’t touch an Arthur Erickson building and just change it in spirit and in design. If they are smart, they keep what they have.”

Project manager Dale Fleck, an adviser to the Bank of Canada governor, says the garden is being closed to security reasons. It will be used as informal meeting space for bank employees. “Security has changed dramatically since this building was opened,” he says. “We’re just a lot more conscious of controlled access to a central bank.”

One of the proposed glass structures on Wellington Street will contain a new main entrance leading to an enlarged Currency Museum and new conference centre. Exit stairs and mechanical equipment will be housed in the other two pavilions.

Construction is budgeted at $460 million. An additional $150 million will go to temporary relocation of 1,200 employees. “It’s bringing the facility into the 21st century,” says Fleck.

Construction is to start in early 2014 for completion in 2017. The complex occupies the city block formed by Sparks, Wellington, Bank and Kent streets.

Considered one of the finest Canadian buildings of the 20th century, the bank’s head office was chosen in 2011 for a prestigious award that recognized enduring excellence and national significance.

The bank, however, declined to accept the Prix du XXe siecle, an honour granted by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the Heritage Canada Foundation.

The timing was not right, says Jill Vardy, chief of communications for the bank. “The bank’s management was in the midst of obtaining approval from its board of directors for an extensive renovation,” she says. “At that point we had not received approval to proceed and therefore have not widely discussed this initiative.”

As part of the renovation, the bank will relocate the Currency Museum from the centre building to the basement of the east tower. This change is also cited as a security measure: the bank’s executives work in the centre building.

The project will install new mechanical, electrical and ventilation systems and add a third layer of glass to the building’s famously elegant curtain wall for energy conservation. It will address new earthquake and fire codes and changed workplace standards.

Erickson, who died in 2009, designed the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Simon Fraser University, and the inverted pyramid for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. His projects include the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Robson Square/Law Courts complex in Vancouver. (The Bank of Canada was realized in association with the architecture firm Marani, Rounthwaite & Dick.)

In his 2012 annual report message, then-Governor Mark Carney wrote “the renewed head office facility will provide a more resilient, secure, modern and efficient work environment. The Bank is committed to carrying out this major project … in a way that preserves the architectural heritage and integrity of the original buildings.”

Perkins & Will, an American firm with offices in Canada, is doing the work. The team includes heritage and landscape experts, says Vardy.

“The centre building is completely respected for its heritage elements,” says architect Fred Vermeulen, based in Dundas, Ont. “The only significant exterior changes are really the security around the perimeter, and the repurposing of the East Plaza.”

The bank is responsible for Canada’s monetary policy, bank notes, financial system and funds management. It has an arm’s-length relationship with the federal government.

“One of the things that is problematic is that the Bank of Canada, because of its special constitutional status is outside any form of review and control,” says Yves Gosselin, an Ottawa architect who acted as professional adviser to the RAIC’s award process. “Even the Parliament buildings are subject to National Capital Commission review and design approval and review by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office.”

André Audette, the bank’s retired former facility and security adviser, calls the building an “icon of architecture” and says the Bank should not be the sole arbiter of what happens to it.

“It is disconcerting and possibly significant that the refusal of this honour came as the bank begins one of the most ambitious renovations ever to be undertaken on the complex,” says Audette, an architect. “Tearing apart the garden without telling anybody, to me it’s like an entrepreneur who is cutting trees during the night.”

He says the bank should solicit advice from conservation experts and open the process to peer review. “There has to be more than the bank looking at the details of this project,” he says. “They should not be the ones deciding what is important.”

Natalie Bull, executive director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, agrees, calling it “one of Canada’s best 20th-century buildings and a great example of the creative integration of old and new,” she says. “The public has a right to be concerned about proposed changes because in fact this building belongs to the people of Canada.”

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