Almost two years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down guided tours of the Senate of Canada Building, the doors to the Red Chamber are virtually open for visitors.  

An online tour of the former train station — now the Senate’s temporary home while Parliament Hill’s Centre Block undergoes rehabilitation — allows virtual visitors to experience the architecture, art and history of this grand, 110-year-old building. See relics from the country’s early days of railway travel, artworks that have been temporarily relocated, and the refurbishments that have allowed senators to continue debating legislation in their new home. It’s almost the same as the in-person guided tour, except the virtual version provides more in-depth information. It’s also an excellent resource for teachers who are looking for fun, interactive ways to bring the Senate into the classroom. In fact, the virtual tour was developed to help students over age 13 learn more about senators and the important work they do.

The engine behind the choose-your-own-adventure-style virtual tour is the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS), an internationally renowned research team affiliated with Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. The 10-person team spent months turning the Beaux-Arts building into an online panorama.

Because CIMS also created the Senate’s virtual tour of Centre Block, which launched in 2017, the team already had a rich repository of 3-D footage of artworks that moved over from the Senate’s permanent home to its temporary one. Even with all this saved data, it took nearly 300 new images to digitally recreate the Senate of Canada Building.

CIMS director Stephen Fai and team lead Abhijit Dhanda photographed the building in August and September 2021. The pair used a fisheye lens to capture photos, then stitched them together to create a seamless digital rendering of the building’s high-ceilinged interior.

“It was definitely a lot emptier in the Senate of Canada Building because of the pandemic,” Mr. Dhanda said. “There weren’t very many people in the building compared to when we were gathering visuals in Centre Block.”

Carving out custom art

To prepare the old train station for the Senate’s move, the CIMS team helped create custom art pieces that are now focal points of the virtual tour. On the east wall of the Senate Chamber, flanking the Speaker’s chair and the two thrones, are two large walnut panels engraved with images of waving Canadian flags. Their creation was a collaborative project between CIMS, Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects, the two companies that jointly managed the refurbishment of the Senate of Canada Building.

To create the panels, CIMS researchers converted flat images into 3-D digital files that could be used for computer-controlled milling. The apparent changes in colour and depth were achieved by using different sizes and types of cutting tools on the mill. While the milling was tested and prototyped by CIMS, the final pieces were manufactured by Beaubois, a fabricator in Quebec. It’s a technological and woodworking marvel considering the team created the three-dimensional effect by cutting just eight millimetres into the walnut panels.

CIMS also teamed up with then-dominion sculptor Phil White to craft the ornate maple leaves decorating the Chamber’s wooden doors and glass windows.

Professor Fai said this type of collaboration between CIMS and the Senate is a testament to the enduring relationship between the two institutions.

“With the two virtual tours and the custom-made artworks, we are telling the story of the Senate and hopefully making that story more accessible to the Canadian public,” he said.

“The Senate of Canada Building, with its rich history, is a fitting venue to continue that story.”

Take the tour!

Professor Stephen Fai, director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS)

Professor Stephen Fai, director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS), and Reem Awad, a CIMS researcher, inspect their work while photographing the Senate of Canada Building.

CIMS team lead Abhijit Dhanda photographs one of the walnut panels engraved with a Canadian flag waving in the wind.

CIMS team lead Abhijit Dhanda photographs one of the walnut panels engraved with a Canadian flag waving in the wind.

A screenshot from the Senate of Canada Building Virtual Tour, which offers a digital exploration of Ottawa’s old central train station. This immersive, 360-degree experience lets users wander the halls of the Senate’s temporary home and offers customized tours.

A screenshot from the Senate of Canada Building Virtual Tour, which offers a digital exploration of Ottawa’s old central train station. This immersive, 360-degree experience lets users wander the halls of the Senate’s temporary home and offers customized tours.

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