Canadian Architect

Feature

Worlds Colliding

The Winnipeg Design Festival offers glimpses into the city's urban potential.

October 25, 2016
by Lawrence Bird

A figure from Manik Dreamscape marks a venue entrance. Photo by Leif Norman.

A figure from Manik Dreamscape marks a venue entrance. Photo by Leif Norman.

Melissa McAlister, MRAIC and Sean Radford are today partners at, respectively, Prairie Architects and AtLRG Architecture. But in 2011, they were interns looking for a creative outlet. The project they came up with was a new public venture: the Winnipeg Design Festival (WDF).

WDF has since evolved into a four-day multidisciplinary celebration, and the signature event of design advocacy group StorefrontMB. This year’s festival spanned architecture, landscape, city planning, furniture design, graphic design and crafts—the latter two new for 2016. WDF draws on local traditions of working small and collaboratively. A revolving curatorship sees outgoing organizers mentoring their successors, and an army of collaborators apply their expertise to specific events.

Mixed Media Music Maker from Art City and planners Freig & Associates appeals to all ages. Photo by Leif Norman.

Mixed Media Music Maker from Art City and planners Freig & Associates appeals to all ages. Photo by Leif Norman.

To encourage synergies between the broad swathe of WDF͛s design disciplines, this year’s organizers, Dora Batista and Pablo Batista, MRAIC (currently interns at Stantec and 5468796 Architecture) adopted a strategy of, as they put it, “worlds colliding”. This entailed scheduling events for distinct audiences close together in time and space. A number of programs converged in Winnipeg’s heritage Exchange District. Exhibitions like Elements Furniture and Model Homes, a pop-up market for crafts and manufacture, as well as a public lecture and film venue dedicated to design entrepreneurship were indicative of the curators͛ eclectic sensibility. The Batistas see public engagement as key to demonstrating that design is not firstly about form, but about thought process. Their approach worked: every evening venue, including those running in parallel, was at capacity.

Besides local talent, the fest has national scope, with BC’s John Patkau, FRAIC, as the 2016 keynote speaker. The organizers say that in the long run, they hope to establish links with other design festivals and become a destination event: drawing not just speakers, but also attendees from across the country. At the same time, they hope to maintain WDF͛s unpretentious spirit of collaboration sensitive to the local context, as well as its “restlessness”, a quality sensed in the multi-disciplinary, peripatetic character of many of the events. McAlister adds that it͛s important to keep leveraging Winnipeg’s “middleness”—its condition on the national periphery and as a regional centre. This seems to play out in the festival’s simultaneously accessible and fringe-like atmosphere, a quality shared by other arts events in the Peg.

A live art piece called Adaptation reimagines a city intersection. Photo by Leif Norman.

A live art piece called Adaptation reimagines a city intersection. Photo by Leif Norman.

The Batistas say that being involved in WDF has given them a new appreciation of what it takes to change perspectives—both in terms of shifting the public perception of design, and in negotiating with stakeholders to co-opt public spaces for the festival. In this regard, WDF͛s ambition was apparent in this year͛s culminating event: a panel discussion, book launch, art installation and finale party held at Winnipeg’s central intersection, Portage and Main. This is a contentious site. Pedestrian crossings were closed in 1978; current mayor Brian Bowman has pledged to remove concrete barriers to help re-connect a fractured downtown. But Winnipeggers have become used to the status quo and are resistant to change.

The WDF responded by working with the Manitoba Professional Planners Institute to set the final events in a little-used plaza at the intersection, bringing attention to how disused spaces like this can be enriched. CBC radio chose to broadcast their popular local morning show from the same site the week after WDF, hosting a discussion with the Mayor on the re-opening of Portage and Main.

A view of the finale party at Portage and Main. Photo by Leif Norman.

A view of the finale party at Portage and Main. Photo by Leif Norman.

This event pointed to WDF͛s broad mission: addressing the public stakes of all types of design, with an end game of enriching Winnipeg’s built environment.

Lawrence Bird, MAA, MCIP is an architect and planner. He works with Winnipeg firm Ager Little Architects.