There are three facts about Ottawa that are useful to know (particularly for an American):
- This friendly, modern, low-key city, when it was established was a rough town of lumberjacks, slowing hewing a life out of a vast difficult wilderness.
- The city's development took off with the building of the Rideau Canal which linked the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. This impressive feat of engineering was undertaken to create a secure line of communication between Upper and Lower Canada that couldn't be cut by the Americans.
- The dominant official architecture is effectively neo-medieval.
I'll take on one and two in later posts. But the third item fascinates me. Readers of this blog know my interest in Canada stems from several sources, including Canadian bravery on the world stage and the fact that it is a liberal democracy that doesn't systematically abuse its citizens. I also really like Canadian literature and my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies, is Canadian and - heavily influenced by Jung - was fascinated by the middle ages.
I live in the Washington, DC area and Washington DC is the greatest accumulation of neo-classical architecture in the world. I love all the white marble and pillars. Every other building looks like a Greek temple. Rooted in symmetry, the buildings reflect the Enlightenment values the Founding Fathers revered. The core of these values is reason.
Canada went another way. Here's a picture of the Ottawa skyline from the river. My phone doesn't do it justice, but there is a line of neo-medieval buildings. The neo-Gothic parliament and its buildings and then the French chateau inspired Supreme Court. With this line of stone buildings sitting on a high bluff, it really made me think of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Beyond it of course are the glass and steel offices of any big city.) If you want more pics, they are on my twitter feed.
There are two obvious explanations for these architectural decisions. The first is simply fashion, neo-Gothic is what they were building in England when Canada when Ottawa was growing into its role as Canada's capital in the late 1800s. Or Canada specifically chose neo-Gothic to contrast with the U.S. neoclassical style (but I don't think so - everything doesn't have to be about us!)
|Entrance into Canada's House of Commons|
Davies, a good Jungian, recognized the limits of reason. It has its place of course, but it is the only way of understanding the world. He felt that in an era that revered reason, feeling was lost. One of his main characters, Dunstan Ramsey - a sort of personification of Canada - is a flinty Scottish schoolmaster. On the side he writes about Saints and believes he has witnessed miracles.
This is perhaps the central theme of his work, that all things (people, institutions, eras) contain their opposite. That opposite or shadow or devil needs to be met. Not fought, not defeated, but understood. We cannot exist without it and are the better when we know it.
The neo-Gothic revival was part of the broader Romantic movement which arose as a response to neo-classicism. The steady rationalisation of society (including the industrial revolution) brought progress, but also pain. Conservatives worried about a loss in human spirit as well as the suffering. In contrast to the Enlightenment's reason, there was a need for feeling. As the scripture reminds us, "Man cannot live by bread alone."
For all the soaring architecture, there was a humility to the Middle Ages and that too needed a re-awakening after Enlightenment confidence. For a nation carved from an incomparably vast land, that caution and humility - with a hint of spirituality seems just right.