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)

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders