Ghosts of Wellington

Originally built in 1927 for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Ottawa, The Wellington Building is an adaptive reuse project architecturally haunted by the ghosts of its past. The 1920s Beaux-Arts building, which received an infill-addition in 1959 and was acquired by the Canadian Government in 1973, sits on the south side of Wellington Street just west of the nearby gothic-revival Parliament Buildings. This proximity, in concert with its striking limestone façade and heritage features, makes it a fitting location to house the country’s Members of Parliament (MPs) and various government activities during the forthcoming, decade-long restoration of the Centre Block building.  

NORR Limited was awarded the contract for the $425-million rehabilitation in 2008, with six years of construction beginning in 2010. During this time (and with Montréal-based  EVOQ Architecture joining the project as heritage conservation architects, responsible for the design and quality assurance of heritage components both on the building’s exterior as well as inside the structure), an extensive renovation of the entire building resulted in the complete reworking of the space, both structurally and programmatically, in an attempt to unify the two eras of the site into one cohesive, code-abiding structure. As such, the building was stripped down to its interior infrastructure in order to perform seismic upgrades, in addition to having all windows replaced and new mechanical and electrical systems installed.

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
The Wellington Building’s original 1927 entrance was developed as the private entry for MPs, with the 1959 entry reconstructed and turned into a public one.

 Equally challenging was the need to fit 70, exterior-facing MP offices, 10 multi-purpose rooms (MPRs), a cafeteria, public spaces, and a satellite location for the Library of Parliament, all within the fixed envelope of the existing site. Yet while the project called for multiple technical, practical, and high-level security features, the nuances of the design response added layers of meaning and dignity to a building that will act as a place of national significance for the foreseeable future.  

 This is most evident in the treatment of the 1927 heritage components, and the value that was placed in either diligently restoring, or appropriately referencing them, in ways that allow for the spirit of the past to infiltrate into the value of the present-day. These spaces now act as the entry sequence for MPs and add a level of history to the new government building, while also working to inform the overall interior design scheme. 

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
In order to provide access to the upper level multi-purpose rooms, a new public space system has been developed, including a two-storey ground floor atrium with a green wall, spiral stair and escalator all located in the heart of the building, recreating a light well that was previously in that location.

 As an adaptive reuse project, NORR had to carefully balance the often-blurred lines between restoration, replication, and renovation. As such, the areas of highest heritage value – which include the northern exterior façade, Wellington entry vestibule, and adjoining heritage lobby – were all treated with varying conservation methods.  

 These undertakings involved the reintroduction of a canopy along Wellington Street, the careful restoration of American-muralist Barry Faulkner’s golden glass-tiled mosaic ceiling in the original vestibule, and the removal, storage, and careful reinstallation of the heritage lobby. This lobby then opens onto a new, multi-storey, contemporary atrium that references the light well that once stood in this place. 

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
The Wellington Building’s two-storey skylight-lit Library of Parliament space includes walls fo acoustical wood panels with sculptural copper shells in front of a perforated copper acoustic wall backing.

 “It became this process of analyzing those few [heritage] fragments and imagining how they could be [leveraged] as part of the entry sequence for the dignitaries and the MPs,” says David Clusiau, NORR vice president, Architectural Design. “It is also a foil, these two sequences – one coming for the south, one coming from the north. They go through a similar series of spaces, but the new ones are done in a kind of contemporary character, but with the same kind of ambition in terms of materials and quality of space as the original heritage ones.” 

 It is the heritage lobby, as such, that acts as the threshold between the new and old, and that first hints at the ‘ghosts’ that now inhabit and flow throughout the building. For while the original marble and minimally ornamented room was fully and diligently disassembled, before being faithfully reconstructed, the elaborate ceiling moldings that had once embellished the space, could only be replicated in form and not colour.  

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
The wall backing is constructed from copper recycled from the 1927 roof that was replaced as part of the project.

 This was due to the fact that no colour images or drawings of the ceiling exist, leaving the architects with the choice to either make assumptions or simply reference it architecturally. Thus the latter was chosen, and the reconstructed ceiling was ultimately painted white, in what Clusiau refers to as a “ghostly replication of what was there… in the spirit of the heritage, [but making it obvious that] it is a recreation.”   

 “I think it’s a great compromise because you have that ornate detail, but with the classic sort of paint,” Clusiau continues. “It is a great entrance into the new contemporary space as you transition into the atrium. So that was an important part of the heritage factor.”  

 This juxtaposition of materiality and heritage allows the past to play against the present, as the original Bottichino marble details of the room are set against a crisp white ceiling. This contrast is important, however, as the heritage lobby now gives way to the modern atrium that now acts as the structural the circulatory core for the building, as well as the first point of arrival for the public, who enter from the south through the 1959 entry off of Sparks Street. 

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
Aligning with the exterior fenestration and pilaster pattern, crush spaces have views of the Corinthian column capitals of the heritage facade, Parliament Hill and the surrounding cityscape.

 This space, which was once a light well in the original 1927 building plan, also gives a sense of the site’s previous essence. This is achieved through the reintroduction of windows that look into the space, as well as through the inclusion of a ‘green wall’ that helps to create the sense of an exterior space, while also anchoring the room and concealing the escalator behind it. 

 The atrium has a minimal, modern, and distinguished aesthetic, with all elements held within it acting on a grand scale. From the monolithic framing of the green wall and the long, low, linear marble bench that wraps around it, to the ephemeral and sculptural spiral stair, the brightly lit space feels inviting and formal simultaneously.  

 It also works to organize the rest of the building through what Clusiau refers to as a “series of stacked public spaces.” This included the need to visually blend the two past phases of the building’s life, while allowing for important physical separations to exist for security reasons. Thus the question of how to move the public from the ground floor entry space to the upper level MPRs, without compromising security or interrupting the activity of MPs, was central to the organizational system of the renovated building. 

 The need for such circulatory problem solving resulted from the decision to locate the MPRs on the upper two most floors. As the fourth floor had the highest ceiling heights, having been built on top of the original 1927 building, it was decided that the third and fourth floors could best accommodate the technical components required of the rooms, such as broadcast lighting.  

 This was resolved through the introduction of a three-storey escalator and spiral stair that only provide access to levels that are accessible to the public. Yet while the stair serves a utilitarian purpose, the white, glass and chrome metal structure, set against the creamy stonewall behind it, is a striking element that harks back to the architectural language of the International Style and the building’s 1950s legacy. 

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
The spiral staircase brings a contoured, kinetic element to the ground floor atrium.

 According to Clusiau, this created “a kind of a play where we were trying to leverage the underlying heritage quality of the space we were saving and some of the organization of the building in a manner that aligned with the program… And there were a couple of ‘Ah-ha’ moments when this started to fall into place, and the actual container started aligning with our placement of the program elements.” 

 Once on these upper floors, sweeping ‘crush’ spaces run the length of the exterior facades, giving way to views of Parliament and the street below. Looking out through these windows, one is also brought to eye level with the flourishing capitals of the 1929 Beaux-Arts Corinthian columns that adorn the building’s stately northern exterior. And here too the sense of being suspended and caught between times and histories is felt. For the space is held on one side by the regular and rigorous geometry of the original exterior wall, with the interior rhythm of the colonnade now boxed in by white-painted gypsum casings, while on the other side, a new, limestone-clad wall elegantly bends, mixing the traditional material with a more modern profile. 

Off of these hallways, MPRs are tucked away and lined in rich walnut wood paneling, allowing the business of the country to happen uninterrupted and with a sense of the importance of the work that takes place within them.   

Wellington Building, Ottawa, NORR
MPRs are wrapped in walnut wood paneling tone evocative of the government work occurring within.

One of the most interesting spaces, however not accessible to the public, is the satellite Library of Parliament facility, which is lit from above by a generous skylight. While normative in its layout and form, the detailing of the walls is both acoustically functional and symbolic of the spirit of the building’s past.  

Lined with perforated wood panels on the lower half, the upper portions of the walls are dutifully scaled by folded plates of cooper, moving the eye up vertically to the skylight above, and casting shadows on the walls below. Constructed from copper recycled from the original 1927 roof that was replaced during the rehabilitation, these triangulated ‘sculptural shells’ give a three dimensionality and tactility to the regular and flat surfaces of the walls. The copper is weathered and patina-laced, with each panel having its own distinct colouration and variation of patterns, as well as evoking memories of Parliament. 

“The idea that it reappears here as a connection back to the Library of Parliament is a pretty appropriate connection,” Clusiau concedes.   

What unifies and yet haunts the building of its past life most subtlety, however, is seen in the effort to salvage and repurpose many of the found materials that occupied the space previously, being brought back to life in a new form or location, such as a speckled green marble that was added in 1959 and now clads a wall in the Sparks Street entrance. 

It was important to work with the “noble materials and elevate the finishes so that it reflects the people who are living in the space”, states Lizanne Dubien, senior interior designer and associate at NORR. “We carefully walked through the building when we originally started the design and tried to pick elements that we felt were noble materials, and materials that would last a long time to try and reuse in different areas” 

The highly restrained yet sophisticated material palette was achieved through a focus on texture, as opposed to colour, giving a neutral yet layered quality to the space. Antique brown marble is found throughout the building’s horizontal surfaces and closely matches the tone of the walnut found throughout, creating an interesting contrast between the warmth of the wood and coolness of the stone. Likewise, tone-on-tone shades of white and cream accentuate the bathrooms, and the use of a single form of limestone creates a cohesive, timeless, and durable set of finishes.    

Yet while the Wellington Building is only a temporary home for such Government activity, a time in the building’s history that one day too will be allocated to the past, its most recent reworking is meant to inspire both now and in the years to come. “We had to produce a facility that in 25 years might be where government or major community activities are occurring, and that space needed to have the same ambitions and create the same atmosphere,” Clusiau concludes. “So whatever role architecture has to support that kind of theatre, on some level, we wanted to achieve that.” 

Photos by Doublespace Photography