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Celebrating the Lester B. Pearson Building’s 50 years

Lester B. Pearson Building (exterior view)

Lester B. Pearson Building (exterior view with road)
Lester B. Pearson Building (exterior). Source: Parks Canada. © PWGSC

August 1, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Lester B. Pearson Building, a symbol of Canada’s involvement on the international scene. Located at 125 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, it serves as the headquarters of Global Affairs Canada, hosting approximately 3,300 employees.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the rich history and enduring legacy of this building!

A visionary architectural work

The Lester B. Pearson Building is situated on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people. It occupies a prominent location on Sussex Drive along the ceremonial route from Parliament Hill to Rideau Hall, the governor general’s residence.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Secretary of State for External Affairs Mitchell Sharp in 1973.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II accompanied by Secretary of State for External Affairs Mitchell Sharp, August 1, 1973. © Government of Canada. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Department of External Affairs fonds.

Standing tall with its 4 office towers, the building marked a significant chapter in Canada’s architectural and governmental heritage. Designed by the firm Webb Zerafa Menkès Housden and built between 1970 and 1973, it was named in honour of Lester B. Pearson, the esteemed prime minister, diplomat and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. His visionary leadership had led to historic contributions to peacekeeping, such as the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force.  

“It is appropriate that Canada's first physical expression of its relations with the rest of the world be named for Mr. Pearson,” a government spokesman said to The New York Times in 1973.

The architectural brilliance of the building showcases the Late Modern movement and has elements of Brutalism. Noel Adams, then-coordinator of requirements for the Department of External Affairs with the Department of Public Works, stated that the design aimed for a sense of repose, quiet dignity, precision and restraint. This vision was manifested through the implementation of strong horizontal lines, an organic form and the incorporation of dark materials.

The building is a landmark and makes a lasting impression on all who visit the bustling neighbourhood nearby.

A nexus for global diplomacy

Design for kitchen at the Pearson Building, with chairs and tables in front of a large window
Rendering of the interior fit-up of Tower D’s lounge kitchen
Source: PWGSC’s website

Over the past 5 decades, this building has served as the epicentre of the department, which is today called Global Affairs Canada. Its halls have borne witness to historic events, state visits and significant diplomatic engagements, starting with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opening the building on August 1, 1973.

In her inaugural speech, Queen Elizabeth expressed her joy that the ceremony was taking place on the eve of her first Commonwealth heads of government meeting. The timing highlighted the significance of this moment for the Commonwealth nations.

Canada’s foreign service officers and diplomatic leaders who work at the building have played a pivotal role in promoting and safeguarding Canada’s interests on the global stage. Throughout the past 50 years, the Lester B. Pearson Building has housed public servants who have championed causes such as human rights, gender equality and peacekeeping worldwide. The department has advanced Canada’s foreign policy objectives, showcased the nation’s values and provided a strong voice in international forums.

Embracing innovation

As the world evolves, so too does this classified federal heritage building. In 2017, a large-scale rehabilitation project was announced. Renovation includes upgraded plumbing and electrical systems to enhance the building’s environmental performance and aims for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification. The interior spaces are being transformed to align with the new Government of Canada standard for offices, announced in 2022, which emphasizes collaboration and flexibility.

The future is bright

As we celebrate the Lester B. Pearson Building’s 50 years, we pay tribute to its remarkable heritage. This iconic structure remains a steadfast embodiment of Canada’s commitment to diplomacy, collaboration and global engagement. Let’s draw inspiration from the values and principles it represents as we forge ahead to foster peace, prosperity and cooperation on the world stage.

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