Book Review: David Penner Architect

David Penner at Table for 1200, an annual event hosted by the organization he created, Storefront Manitoba. Photo by Red Photo Co.

Edited by Tom Monteyne, Jaya Beange, and Owen Swendrowski Yerex. With additional contributions by Eduardo Aquino, Jason Robbins, Ed Epp, Jac Comeau, Dan Wolfrom, Paul Birston, Gerhard Dehls, Chris Wiebe, Matthew Penner, Peter Sampson, Helio Rodrigues, Paul Ingham, Lindsay Reid, Jane Bridle, Don Minarik, Stationpoint Photographic, and Gerry Kopelow (Storefront MB, 2023)

REVIEW Lawrence Bird

David Penner, who passed away in 2020, was one of Winnipeg’s most prominent contemporary architects—and, as a recent publication on his work confirms, also one of its most beloved. 

The book was edited, curated and designed by friends and colleagues Tom Monteyne, Jaya Beange and Owen Swendrowski Yerex. 180 full-colour pages of photographs and line drawings document 20 of Penner’s best buildings: from a Little Free Library and a Warming Hut (“Corogami,” created hors concours and smuggled onto the river ice); to a range of institutional and commercial programs—a museum, an arts centre, a hotel, a library—and several residences, including his own. Each building is accompanied by a brief description from the editorial team, and an extended quotation from a colleague or a client. 

The coloured bars surrounding Penner’s Mere Hotel serve as a privacy device, and are intended to evoke an abstracted forest. Photo by Stationpoint Photographic

In keeping with David’s character, none of these quotations feel like eulogies. They are fond (and sometimes acerbic) memories of the man: celebrations of his art and his tremendous skill at it. One of them is authored by Dan Wolfrom of Wolfrom Engineering. In perhaps the greatest compliment from a peer discipline, the engineer commissioned Penner to design not only his office, but his cottage, too. The dynamic forms of these two buildings embody Penner’s imagination, the respect others had for that imagination, and Penner’s alacrity at exercising it collaboratively. Penner had an exceptional ability to push form, structure, materials, and people to perform at their best. 

Engineer David Wolfrom commissioned Penner to design his office on an infill site south of downtown Winnipeg. Photo: David Penner Archives

After completing his first significant work at Stecheson Katz Architects, Penner set off to found his own firm in 1993. Over the course of his career, he authored some of Winnipeg’s most significant buildings, across a broad range of programs and scales. As a designer, he was always in pursuit of the new idea and the beautiful, stirring form. 

Penner also raised the design bar for Winnipeg by spearheading the creation of Storefront Manitoba, a not-for-profit (and now charity) advocating for architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and city planning. Since its founding in 2010, the organization has organized a plethora of activities promoting design, including the annual Winnipeg Design Festival, and competitions like Cool Gardens (landscape) and Benchmark (street furniture). It is the publisher of a series of books that provoke spatial imaginings and celebrate good design—the most recent of which is the present volume on Penner. 

Penner’s design studio occupied a pyramid-shaped structure in his backyard. Photo: David Penner Archives

Penner’s influence on the design culture of the province he lived in, and on the lives, abilities, and careers of several generations of his peers, is manifest throughout these pages. As the reader moves through the book, they feel they come to know him better. Perhaps the description that best captures him as a person and a designer is “An Inimitable Rogue”—the title of the book’s introduction, penned by Dr. Eduardo Aquino and Elyssa Stelman. This moniker points astutely to Penner’s irascible and indefatigable nature. His willingness to push the envelope is well summarized in the concluding lines of the book, by close colleague Chris Wiebe: “From David’s example, I learned the nuances of risk: know what they are, and choose the right ones to take. More importantly: take them!” 

Such recollections remind us that David was unique, and that while it is true that no one could imitate him, we could all learn from him. His legacy in Manitoba is assured, and this book is a fitting contribution to it.