A Winnipeg Thing

PROJECT Assiniboine Park Washroom Boxes, Winnipeg, Manitoba
ARCHITECT Peter Sampson Architecture Studio
TEXT W. Carson McCance
 PHOTOS Mat Piller and Elaine Stocki

To those that know it, Winnipeg has always been difficult to label or categorize. Cosmopolitan yet rooted in an agrarian tradition, at times resolutely afraid of any perception of non-utility or cultural expression for its own sake, the city can and does produce music, art, literature, and architecture that is interrogative and wholly demonstrative of a pronounced local voice. A construction industry that not only withstood recent economic downturns but thrived in what most consider a “have-not” province frames an architectural environment that sees world-class projects going up alongside the worst lowest-common-denominator, developer-driven buildings. Even the weather plays its role: bitterly cold winters and at times tropical summers that residents cheerfully endure with a pioneer’s hardiness and pride. It is interesting, given these conditions, that Peter Sampson Architecture Studio has with the Assiniboine Park washrooms so cleverly interrogated the processes of sustainability and transformation. Through a relatively humble typology and program, PSA Studio has created a deceptively nuanced contextual dialogue.

At 1,100 acres, Assiniboine Park (along with the adjacent Assiniboine Forest) is perhaps the largest and most notable shared public amenity in the city, Winnipeg’s less urban answer to Central Park. Home to a zoo, restaurants, art installations, gardens, playing fields and interpretive centres, the park is located just south of the Assiniboine River–whose intersection with the famed Red River forms Winnipeg’s first inscribed crossroads. While evolving, the park’s spatial and formal organization paralleled the spaces and structures it contained, many of which were pastoral in spirit if not expression, having much to do with the principles of the 18th-century English and French landscape traditions. There’s a carefully cultivated sense of the natural, equally at home in Kew Gardens as on the Canadian Prairie. While in some respects the setting is antithetical to the highly particularized, there are growing instances of built space that attempt to bring a specificity of use and expression together. Historically, at least, one might think an architectural folly not entirely out of place, given its adjacency to the Lyric Theatre and Pavilion Gallery Museum, both Tudor-inspired buildings located at the north end of the park. One could scarcely imagine a program less suited to a folly, however–interesting in itself as a sort of inversion of the “programless” meme of yesteryear. 

Three distinct yet linked masses, providing four-seasons male, female, and universal-access washrooms along with mechanical and utility spaces, are created by repurposing 40-foot-long shipping containers. The decision was made early in the process to provide an architectural skin of shiplapped cedar siding and insulation on the exterior while leaving the interior expression decidedly raw and original. That these were once the “other” is only readily apparent on entry. Storage and mechanical spaces are found in the slivers of connective tissue that stitch the splayed forms together, set into the larger context so as to reinforce the viewing geometry from the Lyric Theatre. Formal manipulation was limited to maintain the containers’ structural integrity, and as such it is only on their short elevations that erasure is allowed to occur. The voids are filled with frosted and opaque glazing that provides both privacy and a surface to alternately reflect or retreat into the immediate surroundings. There is a certain interest created in such subtle ambiguity, only just offset by modest signage and subtle text. 

Almost entirely constructed and assembled off site and brought to the park via trucks, the whole project–from conception to completion of construction–lasted only four months. The design-build delivery methodology employed here is increasingly becoming as locally ubiquitous as the mosquito, but is more an indication of a collaborative and budget-conscious sensibility that owners see favourably. The project forms part of a larger narrative undertaken by PSA Studio; when seen alongside their earlier bikeLAB and bikeFORKS projects, it forms an ongoing conversation that has at its heart the transformation of found objects, the “mining of unnatural resources,” as Sampson puts it–residual spaces, materials, and sites reinvented and reinserted rather than merely recycled. It’s not the sort of superficial contextuality that mandates mimicry or deformation. This is a different breed, one that is as much about when as where, and one that operates on the level of process as much as product.

Surely the idea of reuse seen here, and the economy of both scale and production, speaks loudly to the realities of 21st-century practice in which we all operate. Winnipeg’s history, so indelibly writ by trains, trucks and transit, is firmly established. Nowadays shipping containers that originate from a world away end up here only to be abandoned, having reached the end of the line. These three, at least, have been reinscribed to be something entirely new, perhaps echoing the fact that Winnipeg was once that which (re)inscribed the Prairie and which has, in turn, been reimagined as both more and less than a transportation hub. 

It’s a narrow path to negotiate, one that may not be clear to those unfamiliar with Winnipeg. There’s an elevation of the pragmatic, a level of understated innovation here that is entirely of this place. The realities of today’s practice are all too often driven by processes rather than product–schedule, cost, fees, committee. Finding solutions that are elegant while respecting all that comes with budget and delivery pressure is in itself relevant to context regardless of region or sector, but most certainly resonates in Winnipeg’s economic climate. Here, the architect has utilized an economy of both means and production that responds to what can be a “small-c conservative” fiscal environment while acknowledging environmental responsibility. There’s an ability on the part of PSA Studio to produce refinement without ostentation, and to question without shouting for attention, resulting in an evolved expression growing from the city’s well-documented Modernist tradition while still remaining current and topical. 

It’s a lot to ask from three public washrooms, but Peter Sampson Architecture Studio has done much to negotiate what to some hailing from further afield might see as contradictory.

It’s not. It’s just a Winnipeg thing. CA

A graduate of the University of British Columbia, Carson McCance lives in Winnipeg. Since 1998, he has worked with LM Architectural Group.

Client Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Architect Team Peter Sampson, John Duerksen, Andrew Lewthwaite, Liane Veness, Dirk Blouw, Mat Piller, Monica Hutton
Structural Wolfrom Engineering Ltd.
Landscape Assiniboine Park Conservancy with Peter Sampson Architecture Studio
Interiors Peter Sampson Architecture Studio
Contractor Gardon Construction Ltd.
Area 1,100 ft2
Budget $350,000
Completion May 2013