Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Parliamentary Gothic: The Art of History in Canada's Parliament Buildings

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Parliamentary Gothic: The Art of History in Canada's Parliament Buildings

Article excerpt

The Gothic Revival architecture of Canada's Parliament Buildings displays an institutional fascination with the relationship between medieval history and power. This fascination began but did not end with the construction of the buildings: rather, it continues with the ever-growing Heritage Collection of the House of Commons. The mission of this collection is to document and preserve "the history and traditions of Parliament" through works that are "symbolic of Canada's momentous events and individuals," but the project also inevitably involves the creation of historical narratives (House). The Heritage Collection comprises not only discrete historical objects, but also architectural elements of the Parliament Buildings themselves. According to the collection's curatorial body, "the limestone reliefs are meant to be read like the sculptures of medieval buildings" ("History"); however, some of these "heritage" elements are historical in topic only, having been carved into previously blank walls in recent decades. These works of art thus reflect modern ideas about the relationship between historical narratives and political power in the halls of government. This essay looks at the intersections of architecture, literature, and art to decipher these narratives, paying particular attention to depictions of settler-Indigenous relationships. It focuses on three main issues: the discourses of the original architectural competition, the literary influences of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthurian legend on the reconstruction of the Centre Block after the 1916 fire, and the shift towards incorporating Indigenous artwork beginning in 1980. Through these three issues, I trace a path from architectural structure to ornamental detail and analyze the tension between the two. This tension is most evident in the Centre Block, where Indigenous art resists the subordination of Indigenous ornament to Anglo-European architecture. Commissioning Indigenous artworks is a belated attempt by the National Capital Commission to change the surface (but not the underlying structure) of Parliament, and thus may seem to be an appropriation of Indigenous voices for colonial purposes. However, some of these Indigenous artworks comment directly on the colonial power of Parliament and work to subvert the Anglo-European narratives that developed throughout the building's history. This subversion has so far taken root only in the Centre Block; in contrast, the structural and decorative elements of the East and West Blocks have so far remained stubbornly Anglo-European. The planned renovation of the entire complex may provide fertile ground for a more symbolically inclusive aesthetic as a necessary step towards a more equitable political structure.

The original Parliament Buildings predate the existence of Canada as a nation: they were built for the Province of Canada (the southern portions of modern Ontario and Quebec) between 1859 and 1866, finished one year before Confederation in 1867. Like the British Houses of Parliament, which were also reconstructed in the mid-nineteenth century, Canada's Parliament Buildings took their inspiration from Gothic architectural forms, with a generous helping of the picturesque eclecticism that marks much Victorian architecture. Gothic Revival (or Neo-Gothic) architecture looks to the great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages for their pointed window and doorway arches, the high ribbed vault ceilings, features that draw the eye skyward. In the Middle Ages, the airiness of such details suggested the spirit reaching towards heaven, but of course the grandeur of these cathedrals also invoked the power of the worldly institution. Harold Kalman has shown the duality of secular and religious adaptations of Gothic architecture in Canada, arguing that "Gothic Revival was introduced into Canada as a mode for religious buildings, because of the associations with medieval churches and cathedrals--and, by extension, with an earlier and supposedly purer Christianity" (261). …

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