Banff Part One: Gothic in the Mountains

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain

As part of our regular summer trips to Canada, R. and I usually take time to visit someplace other than my old hometown of Toronto. Over the years, we’ve hit Montreal, Algonquin Provincial Park, and Vancouver. This summer, on our return trip back Tokyo, we stopped over in Alberta to spend a few days in Banff.

The town of Banff sits snug in the rain shadow of the eastern Rockies, an outpost of caramel apples, handmade soaps, and tiled hot springs in the wilderness. I use the word “snug” not just because that’s the same word used in the Banff Design Guidelines, but because even on the town’s main drag, Banff Street, houses, stores, and other buildings, even the Clock Tower and Cascade shopping malls, are built of materials and in styles which harmonize with the natural surroundings. In this way Banff reminds me of Wychwood Park in Toronto, a community inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in England. William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright would approve of Banff, though Wright’s picnic pavilion was apparently quite controversial (locals wanted a hockey rink).

The one questionable exception to the Guidelines is also the town’s most notable building: the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The American architect Bruce Price, who also designed landmark buildings for the Canadian Pacific Railway including Gare (Station) Windsor and Viger in Montreal, and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, founded the Railway Gothic school of architecture – Canada’s first attempt at a distinctive architectural style – by looking back to Victorian Gothic Revival and French chateaux of the Loire Valley.

I dunno. What works in old cities like Montreal and Quebec seems out of place to me in the mountains. Price apparently though his style organic; critics have called it “archaeological“. The medieval style would have worked wonders for my Dungeons & Dragons fuelled-imagination as a kid; even now I dig turrets and drawbridges in, like, the Lord of the Rings movies. But out here in the wilderness, I agree with the writers of the Guidelines in their specifications for a Rocky Mountain Style: especially when it comes to keeping things on a “human scale”. That said, the hotel does look good from a distance; from say, the top of Sulphur Mountain where this picture was taken.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain

(For the record, we didn’t stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, though I would have considered it if R. had taken an interest. Guess I’ve still got a little D&D left in me…)

2 thoughts on “Banff Part One: Gothic in the Mountains

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