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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture