Canadian Architect


Experimental Architecture

A new laboratory building for structural and material experimentation constitutes a thoughtful essay on tectonics.

February 1, 2003
by Kevin Alter

Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba

The C.A.S.T. website is: 

Herbert Enns Architect/GBR Architects Limited

The architecture building at the University of Manitoba–the John Russell Building of 1959–is a very good building. It carries the modern legacy of optimism from an era when architects believed that buildings could and should make a significant difference in people’s lives. Not overly dogmatic, yet unabashedly modern in its sensibility and character, the Russell building must have been radical in its day–in many ways, it still is. The student lounge sits above the faculty lounge and is rendered in exactly the same form. They share the same view of an internal courtyard that recasts the exterior world in an ideal fashion. Open floor plans define the studio spaces and provide ample light. Faculty offices are construed such that no office owns the exterior windows. Rather, access to the view, light and air is the purview of all vis vis corridors that run between glazed offices and the exterior window walls–thereby also creating a social space that invites impromptu encounters and conversations. The centre of the school is manifested in Centrespace. A large room located opposite the courtyard in plan, and similar in size, it is the symbolic and programmatic heart of the school, where lectures, critiques and exhibitions take place.

The Russell building is ambitious, and has stood the test of time. Certainly, this ambition seems appropriate given the enormous responsibility it has to both house, and set an example for, generations of soon-to-be architects. Moreover, the nature of its ambition is tuned to a value system that lauds social empowerment. In contrast, if we were to try to define the value system of the architectural profession through the kind of work generally observed in contemporary design publications, we might form an altogether different conclusion as to what we value about architecture; dynamism, unusual form, innovation and easily consumable image seem to win out over ambitions for use and social change. Additionally, architectural ambition is all-too-often tied to a building’s program, so that large, civic buildings strive to be important, whereas small buildings are modest.

An extension of the architecture program at The University of Manitoba, the new laboratory building for the Centre for Architectural Structural Technologies (CAST) is another story entirely. It nobly carries on the modern legacy that gave rise to the Russell Building, without any sense of romanticism or historical quotation. While tiny in comparison, its ambitions are similarly large.

The University of Manitoba is experiencing a remarkable amount of growth (especially due to its burgeoning partnerships with private industry), and new building accordingly. One of the newest additions to the campus is CAST, an interdisciplinary centre intent on pursuing the possibilities latent in a wide range of structural and material inquiry. In an era where contemporary architectural thought is putting its future into computer simulation and rapid prototyping, CAST is committed to imagination, poetry, invention, risk and the unknown alongside the study of natural and physical laws. It supports the important pedagogical view that architecture does not gradually emerge from a preoccupation with theory and composition, but rather, that architecture begins from physical phenomena. It is important that this kind of research is taking place within an architectural curriculum. Architecture by its very nature is collaborative and interdisciplinary, and by necessity, physical. The CAST program is intended to be purely speculative and tied to a variety of related fields of inquiry. Sited precisely in between the schools of Engineering, Architecture and Fine Arts, the building sits directly in front of the Heritage Modern John Russell Building. Prior to the CAST laboratory building’s construction, it would have been hard to imagine anything occupying this position well. Now in place, the building appears inevitable, as if it had been conceived in tandem with its preceding buildings and master plan.

The CAST laboratory building is essentially a large open space of approximately 5,000 square foot in which to work and teach. Fundamentally provisional in character, careful fenestration and egress along with a 1,200 square foot second-floor loft define particular precincts within the building for differing kinds of work and teaching. The building’s interior is left relatively rough, while its outside skin is carefully rendered in a variety of brick, concrete masonry units and Tyndall stone. A storefront window system and metallized doors complete the image of a precise, jewel-like box–intriguing, provocative, and very carefully composed.

CAST began with the vision of director Mark West, the University Partners Program and a $350,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). One of two grants given to the University of Manitoba in the foundation’s first year, it also bequeathed upon CAST the authority of its imprimatur, and consequently, the ability to raise additional funds and gain control of such a prominent site. The grant itself, along with the 20% stake of in-kind services donated by Maurice Steele, afforded the purchase of the tools necessary for the centre’s operation and a small, prefabricated metal building. The site had been selected and agreed upon for programmatic reasons, but its location demanded a more impressive building. Herb Enns’ involvement as design architect created a collaboration between West and Enns, and the CAST laboratory building arises out of their collective agenda, West wanting the building to be robust, functional and uncontrived; Enns wanting it to be a work of architecture.

The complex funding of the CAST laboratory building, including the tremendous in-kind donations from industry, made for a very unusual course of construction. Through the tireless efforts of West and Enns, over 100 donations were solicited and put in place. The names of these organizations, companies, and individuals are sandblasted into the bricks beside the main entrance. They represent the miraculous physical and social enterprise that is this project–bringing to mind the image of a barn raising. All the masonry as well as the sheet steel structure were donated. Similarly, the majority of the glazing, doors, mechanical and electrical were also donated. Without an overall general contractor, this project was coordinated through West and Enns and the good will of their various partners in the construction and manufacturing industries. The building was an architectural gamble: it arose from an exigency of opportunity and will, and its character is very much a product of the means that were available. The generosity of the masonry contractors and manufacturers, for example, allowed and encouraged a tour de force in masonry construction, and the subtle yet powerful use of multiple patterns to both reference and provoke further inquiry.

As a building put forth by the Faculty of Architecture, Enns contended that CAST needed to be an exemplary structure. Indeed, the centre itself is all the more crucial because it is housed in a work of architecture. As the visible model of the enterprise, CAST accepts its responsibility in its mission, teaching and in its physical being. Indeed the seriousness of the commitment, and the legitimacy of the enterprise are established by the quality of the building itself. Now finished, the building is inspiring the program of the centre. In addition, the facility challenges the work produced in the centre towards building, and by implication demands interrogation beyond purely sculptural and/or engineering concerns. The speculative work produced in the centre is thereby tested in an architectural setting.

The CAST laboratory building is sited directly along the primary entry thoroughfare int
o the University of Manitoba campus. Despite this prominent location, it is the only building that addresses the street directly. The use of abstraction and a sophisticated compositional hand are paramount in the public presentation of the building. Its carefully composed faades give the building a sense of importance and draw the visitor’s eye around and into its interior space. The faades pay homage to, and create subtle connections with, the Russell Building, making careful alignments and references. The CAST laboratory building’s elevations make clear delineations in character between its differing aspects and conspire with its adjacencies to define exterior spaces: an entrance court for the Russell Building, for example, is made between CAST and the neighbouring music building. On the street, Enns has placed a stage for the work produced in the centre to be displayed. Against the backdrop of the building itself, every visitor to the campus will be confronted with the fruits of CAST’s labours, centre-stage.

Straightforward in plan, the CAST laboratory building is active in elevation. Carefully designed brick and block patterns abstractly expose something of the interior to the world outside, and are reiterated again inside in even more subtle patterns of ground versus rough block. The main corner protrudes with a Tyndall stone shield at the second level. Beautifully hewn, it is detailed so that it appears unreasonably thin, floating effortlessly in front of the building. Directly below, and protected by the stone shield, a carefully detailed window wall opens this main corner of the building to the out-of-doors and the public beyond. The visitor sees directly into the building, and the activities in the sewing room are exposed adjacent to the display stage. On the opposite side, a seemingly random pattern of different-sized openings are offered to encourage their subsequent fitting out in future experiments.

The CAST laboratory building’s rough interior is separated from its precise exterior by a thin veil of glass, masonry and steel. Unlike its Beaux Arts counterparts, where great discrepancies in character are separated through a thick poch of building mass, whether inside or out, the thinness of the CAST laboratory building’s skin allows an awareness of both conditions. This thinness is important: it encourages a continuous comparison of the two worlds, and provokes curiosity.

There are many ways to describe a building: from the desires of the clients, to the intentions of the architects, to the facts of construction and fabrication, each offering insight into the building’s nature. With the CAST laboratory building, the process of its coming into being plays an unusually poignant role in defining the physical artefact. It is a building built on good will and passion. Improbable as it was, the altruism and idealism that created the CAST laboratory building defines it as much as the building is defined by physical form. Indeed, there is something of the same attitude that defines the centre itself. All work produced at CAST is to be in the public domain. It is defined as speculative research, pure and simple, and for the good of all.

Kevin Alter is Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor of Architecture and the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at the School of Architecture of the University of Texas at Austin. His professional practice, Alterstudio, has received several design awards, and been featured in Architecture, Architectural Design and Texas Architect.