PROJECT La Cuisine backstage kitchen & Site office, Bird’s Hill Provincial Park, Manitoba
ARCHITECT Syverson Monteyne Architecture
TEXT Brent Bellamy
PHOTOS Syverson Monteyne Architecture unless otherwise noted

Just outside Winnipeg, a tranquil prairie meadow stretches along the eastern edge of Bird’s Hill Provincial Park. Enclosed by the ragged silhouette of a bur oak forest, small springtime flowers pepper its landscape. Its yellow grasses sway in the wind while nervous groundhogs cause the only sporadic bursts of activity.

 Every July for the past 40 years, this pastoral scene explodes into a five-day kaleidoscope of colour and sound, becoming the site of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, one of North America’s largest outdoor music celebrations. 

As the festival gates open, thousands rush to claim their favourite piece of real estate near the main stage. Squatter’s rights are established by laying out colourful polyethylene tarps which soon create a patchwork of blue, red and orange stretching across the forest clearing like a giant woven tapestry. Depending on the weather, people spend the day with sunburnt faces or covered to their knees in mud, or sometimes both. They dance, they sing, or they just sit and listen as music fills the summer air. When the sun sets along that razor-sharp Prairie horizon, the 180-degree sky transforms into a dome of brilliant colour and the festival takes on a renewed intensity.

For many, the Winnipeg Folk Festival is a rite of the fleeting Manitoba summer. Its sprawling meadow has become a sacred place. Year after year people sit beneath the same tree or on the same patch of grass, beside the same friends. They bring their newborn children who return each year a little taller and a little older. 

In 2008, the festival organizers approached Syverson Monteyne Architecture with the challenge of designing the first permanent structure to inhabit this hallowed ground. Known as La Cuisine, the building was envisioned as an anonymous storage shed for 360 days a year, that during the festival would blossom into a social hub and kitchen facility capable of preparing 10,000 meals a day, feeding what becomes Manitoba’s third-largest city for the week. 

The festival owns several large and valuable tents that for many years have been unceremoniously packed away in old shipping containers after the event. With its high, unobstructed space, La Cuisine would at long last provide the opportunity to properly hang-dry, clean and securely store the tents throughout the year. 

Six weeks before the crowds rush in, La Cuisine starts its transformation into the festival nucleus as volunteers descend upon the building to begin unpacking tents and supplies, using it as a base and staging area during the set-up period. As the event draws near, the kitchen crew arrives and installs a collection of cylindrical steel homemade ovens in preparation for the invasion to come.

To ease the cultural transition from cooking beneath open tents to a permanent facility, La Cuisine emulates the feel and function of the earlier temporary structures. Panels are removed and the walls of the building slide open to allow full natural cross-ventilation and filtered light through a large, open floor area. The overall spatial experience is similar to that of the tents that had been used for so many years previous.

In introducing the festival’s first permanent building, Syverson Monteyne took the opportunity to organize the backstage area of the grounds. The designers reconfigured the site to optimize vehicular circulation, improve site drainage, and create a clear distinction between back-of-house and performance zones. 

During the festival, La Cuisine is surrounded by a series of temporary tents that form a pedestrian piazza. The building engages this gathering zone with a long, narrow open space that runs the length of its front façade. Initially designed in response to the programmatic requirement for high open areas to hang-dry festival tents, the colonnade quickly evolved into a social focal point. Known as the Verandah, in reference to the residential front porches that characterize Winnipeg’s many tree-lined neighbourhoods, it serves as a key arrival point and meeting spot, a backstage hangout, an impromptu music platform and a place to find shelter when the inevitable rains come.

The Verandah’s thoughtful external expression has become a symbol of the festival itself. Clad in a mosaic of corrugated metal and translucent polycarbonate panels, the main façade mimics the familiar colours and patchwork expression of the tarps laid in front of the main stage. The translucent panels filter light into the building, furthering its tent-like experience. At night, the building transforms into a lantern, allowing festival-goers to safely navigate the grounds.

In keeping with its sustainability agenda, the festival organization challenged the architects to make La Cuisine as environmentally responsible as possible. To achieve this, upon completion of the schematic design phase, with building massing, functional relationships and overall expression defined, the design team set out to source recycled materials for construction. 

A pre-engineered steel frame was thought appropriate to create a long-span, high-volume structure. The designers located a partially demolished building, and with a short window of opportunity, measured and modelled each structural component. They then laid out the kit of parts and rearranged the building blocks to establish the general volume that they envisioned during schematic design. After deeming the solution appropriate, the building was purchased, disassembled and moved to its new location. All modifications to the reconfigured superstructure were done on site with little added steel and no wasted material.

From the ground up, the building treads lightly. All columns, including the reclaimed hydro poles that support the Verandah, bolt directly to helical ground anchors. No concrete is used and the entire structure may be disassembled and relocated if required.

Each reclaimed material used to create La Cuisine is imbibed with a spirit of place that reflects the essence of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Wood flooring milled from local oak trees, weathered hydro poles that once stood defiantly on the harsh Prairie landscape, the rust and peeling paint of the steel frame: each tells its own narrative, each has its own history. Composed together, these materials saturate the building with a depth of character that is much like the music so many thousands of people make the annual pilgrimage to hear. 

When Syverson Monteyne Architecture began the La Cuisine project, they were faced with an apprehension towards change from those who cared deeply about the traditions and character of their place. Through a sensitive use of materials, a familiar spatial experience and well-considered functional planning, the final result resonates with the festival community. Today, they embrace La Cuisine as a beloved addition to the Winnipeg Folk Festival family, and as a central platform on which to construct new traditions and memories. CA

Brent Bellamy is an architect with Number Ten Architectural Group and is a regularly featured architecture and urban design columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Client Winnipeg Folk Festival
Architect Team Tom Monteyne, Fletcher Noonan
Structural Wolfrom Engineering
Mechanical/Electrical/Civil KGS Group
Landscape Hilderman Thomas Frank & Cram Landscape Architecture and Planning
Contractor Milestone Project Management
Area 6,000 ft2
Budget $400,000