Redeveloping an embassy on Trafalgar Square brought our Canada and UK design team together to showcase the building and the nation
By Aaron Taylor, Cindy Rodych, and Noel Best
Aaron Taylor, Architectural Lead (London, UK)
Canada House’s prominent position on the west side of Trafalgar Square – one of the world’s most recognizable and vibrant open spaces – presented both an incredibly exciting and daunting task for the architecture and interior design team. Canada House is a Grade II* Listed building in the Greek Revival style designed by Sir Robert Smirke, architect of The British Museum. It was built between 1824-27 as the premises for the Royal College of Physicians and the Union Club, and altered on conversion to Canada House by Septimus Warwick in 1923. The redevelopment joins the historic Canada House with the adjacent 1920s vintage 2-4 Cockspur building, recently purchased by Canada, to allow for the consolidation of all diplomatic functions into one address.
The British Columbia Room celebrates the best of the province’s art, design and manufacturing expertise (Image © Ben Blossom)
From the very start, the Canadian High Commission gave us a very clear mandate for the project:
- Bring daylight deep into the building
- Showcase the best of Canada’s design and manufacturing industry
- Showcase the versatility of wood, one of Canada’s most important natural resources throughout
- Showcase the best of Canadian art, crafts and furniture, both contemporary and historical
We also wanted to celebrate the best of Canada – its people, climate, and places. This idea is truly showcased in the dedication of each primary meeting space to an individual province or territory, each of which pays tribute to the art, crafts and furniture of that specific locale.
Canada House has been an amazing opportunity for Stantec’s design team. Embassies are typically very closed and withdrawn. Our ethos for this project was to reinstate the open front entrance of the building – to allow the general public to enter Canada House, sit down and experience a little bit of Canada. Previously, the building had no sense of activity, no real public access, and certainly didn’t extol the virtue of Canada in the global context. Now, for the first time in 50 years, Canada has the opportunity to display the best of its diversity, geography and citizens.
Trafalgar Square’s historic structures left to right: Canada House, Nelson’s Column and The National Gallery (Image © Ben Blossom)
Cindy Rodych, Lead Interior Designer
When we started the design, we knew there were existing heritage elements that needed to be prominent, so we honed in on those right from the start. For instance, we made the fireplaces in the lobby, the High Commissioner’s private office, and within the Laurier Room the focal points of each room.
We also uncovered and refurbished four original skylights between the two complexes, which added beautiful feature elements to several rooms and helped meet the goal of getting natural light deep into the floorplate. We found several other ways to work light into the interior, too, like restoring a dome skylight and adding a custom glass chandelier in the Ontario Room, which not only lights up the space but creates a beautiful night feature that’s visible from Trafalgar Square.
As part of our goal to incorporate wood into the space, we reconceived a timber and glass vestibule from the abandoned 1924 Canada House, considered a heritage element by British Heritage, as a display space for Canada House’s throne. And with the addition of some new insulation, the beautiful interior doors can also now be left open, making visible the intricate surface of the heritage doors for all to enjoy.
Designing a striking, modern, evocative space balanced with historic preservation is always a challenge. But with so much cultural significance and history behind Canada House, it was an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience – including the surprises that always surface once construction of a historic site is underway.
Noel Best, Lead Design Architect (Vancouver, BC)
As demolition began, we started to uncover significant heritage elements. With each new discovery, we tried to retain as much of the building’s Neo-Classical charm as possible, from beautiful original marble floors to an original timber staircase.
With its long history and numerous renovations, many of the fine architectural details had been covered over or lost. Using a combination of historic photos and squeezes architectural details such as plaster wall and dado mouldings and skirting, cast iron balustrades, timber handrail profiles, cornices and crown mouldings were painstakingly preserved or recreated throughout Canada House. Original timber doors, custom cast brass door push/pull plates and handles were also refurbished and restored where possible.
But it wasn’t just about restoration. It was also about enhancing what was present. One of the key spaces within Canada House is the “cascading” staircase within The Queen Elizabeth Atrium. The atrium and feature staircase create opportunity for social connections among occupants. Natural light from the skylight above illuminates every flight and injects a sense of warmth into the very heart of the complex.
For all of Stantec’s team members, Canada House offered the opportunity of a lifetime. With a team comprised of British and Canadians employees, we brought the best of both countries together to breathe new life into Canada House – now a true celebration of the best that Canada has to offer.