On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

prudhomme

Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.

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Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?