Design for Responsible Government: Canada's Parliament, 1859-76
University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
Long recognized as an exemplary Victorian legislative complex and celebrated for their clifftop location and bold neo-Gothic character, the Canadian parliament buildings at Ottawa (1859-76, rebuilt 1918-27) have nevertheless not been well understood in cultural, economic, and governmental terms. Something of a paradox – an advanced exercise in Ruskinian Gothic in a famously wild location and an expensive public work built at a time when French-English sectional strife and heavy public debt combined to threaten to topple the government of the United Province of Canada – the complex of public buildings at the new capital nevertheless represented startling progress in liberalism and modernity in Canada, which until shortly before had been operated as a chain of garrison colonies rigidly ruled by imperial martinets. Parliament’s symmetrical layout – different from that of Westminster – around two chambers of equal size and its pavilioned, frontal character facing a public square above the town signaled the pioneering in Canada, in the previous decade, of the principle of “responsible” government, with representative parliamentary institutions, which continued to guide the organization of the self-governing “dominions” -- a term coined in Canada – within the British Empire into the 20th century. It is this cultural and political content of Parliament that previous treatments in architectural history -- even my own articles and papers (some for SAH) -- have tended to overlook. Consequently, the real novelty of the Ottawa parliament, as the symbolic and administrative headquarters of a politically and culturally British province on the rich, expansive, and relatively liberal North American continent, has been missed. Bridging form and context, this paper will straddle the boundaries between several histories – of government, partisan politics, economy, society, education, ethnicity, and architecture -- and will make comparisons with legislative complexes in other countries.