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Caught between kitsch and queen: Robin Ward describes the colonial charms of Victoria, a flamboyant setting for the Commonwealth Games

Television reports of sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games reveal athletes, crowd and running track, but rarely a glimpse of the host city. This year the Commonwealth Games are to be held in Victoria, British Columbia. Who in Britain has a clear image of this provincial Canadian city?

Yet when the Queen opens the Games tomorrow she will find herself on oddly familiar ground. Victoria is a former British colonial outpost, described by the local tourist board as 'a little bit of olde England'. There is some truth to the claim, even if the city is unmistakably North American underneath its imperial skin.

Around the turn of the century Victoria became an enclave not of sporting stars but of civil servants, attracting a corps of British officials lured by prospects of comfortable retirement, an 'English' climate and 'Scottish' scenery. Visitors arriving on Clyde- built steamers were thrilled by the experience - 'half-way between Balmoral and heaven' said Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, although it looked much more like a cross between Oban and Eastbourne.

Victoria's inner harbour remains a panoply of colourful imperial architecture, dominated by the provincial Parliament Buildings, the chateauesque Empress Hotel of 1908, and the Neoclassical Canadian Steamship Terminal of 1924, all designed by the city's most memorable architect, Francis Rattenbury.

The streets are lined with facades of great charm. Victoria's late 19th-century brick and stone shops, warehouses and banks were generally built to a uniform scale. None completely overpowers its neighbour, yet each building expresses the taste and idiosyncrasies of its architect or owner. Chinese recessed balconies, Classical columns, baronial turrets and heavenly spires jostle in a pleasingly incongruous ensemble.

Government Street has a notably rich display of styles, from a chateau- like bank to an Art Nouveau chocolate shop, while Bastion Square, built on the site of a Hudson's Bay Company fort, with its alleys and its sudden vista of the sea, is one of the most attractive public spaces in Canada.

While early settlers were mostly opportunistic Scots, it was an ambitious English architect who gave Victoria the imperial backdrop that will become familiar to those attending the Commonwealth Games. Outside Canada, Francis Mawson Rattenbury is largely forgotten. If he is remembered at all in England, it is for being murdered in 1935 by his chauffeur (his wife's lover) in the house he had retired to in Bournemouth. The Villa Madeira case caused a sensation and inspired Terence Rattigan's play Cause Celebre.

Rattenbury was born into a Methodist family in Leeds in 1867 and trained in his uncle's architectural practice, Lockwood & Mawson, noted for Bradford Town Hall and Saltaire, the model mill town. He sailed to Canada in 1892 and the next year, aged 25, won a competition to design the new Provincial Parliament Buildings in Victoria. His precociously accomplished design caught the spirit of the age and reflected the local setting with a blend of rugged Romanesque architecture and British imperial pretension.

The rumour was that Rattenbury had plagiarised his design from a Lockwood & Mawson scheme for a maharajah's palace. Certainly there is a hint of the Raj in the flamboyant building, but you can also detect features that the architect would have known from mainstream British municipal and institutional buildings of the period, such as the City Chambers, Glasgow, and the Imperial Institute and the Natural History Museum, South Kensington.

Rattenbury was not invited to the official opening of Victoria's most distinctive building in 1898 because he had disgraced himself in local eyes by vastly overspending on statuary carved by immigrant Scottish and Italian craftsmen, wrought-iron gates from London, stained glass from William Morris and imported mahogany, marble and mosaics.

The completion of the visionary Parliament Buildings brought Victoria to its bourgeois, fin-de-siecle apogee. Only 50 years before, it had been the site of a Hudson Bay fort, and from 1858 a rough-and-ready gold- rush town where the most important buildings were bars, brothels, false- fronted hotels and the jail.

It was not until 50 years after Rattenbury's murder that Victoria built again on a heroic scale. This time, its architectural renascence was led by the mammoth Eaton Centre, a shopping mall that has spawned imitators worldwide. It is a theme park of a building, a mix-and-match of 19th- century styles designed to blend into Victoria's traditional architecture.

Sadly, the belle-epoque, carriage- trade architecture it was meant to emulate was lost along the way: the Eaton Centre is pure kitsch. Here one finds Georgian London, Victorian Leeds, the Crystal Palace and the monumental shopping gallerias of 19th-century Italy all rolled incongruously into one. The mall's main decorative feature, the British Empire Clock (designed in French Second Empire style) tells shoppers the time in London, Singapore, Brisbane, and Bombay as well as playing the chimes of Big Ben.

Victoria's infatuation with its own long-established tourist slogan, 'a little bit of olde England' has thus led to monumental architecture both inspired and banal. On balance, the inspired still leads. Victoria is a special city that deserves to be discovered through the welcome agency of the Commonwealth Games.

(Photograph omitted)