Floating On Water

PROJECT H2Office, Winnipeg, Manitoba
ARCHITECT Cibinel Architects Ltd.
TEXT Peter Sampson
PHOTOS Mike Karakas
At a research park located on the University of Manitoba’s main Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg-based Cibinel Architects have designed a new head office and research facility for RTDS Technologies, a digital information company. The project is a disciplined response to a complex construction sequence that involves spanning a large existing retention pond.
The building is located on a 100-acre site being developed by the SmartPark Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the University of Manitoba that has initiated a research and development park on an existing greenfield portion of the campus. SmartPark–a kind of intellectual’s industrial park–is part of a global trend towards research and innovation campuses that bridge corporate and academic research to attract emerging companies in the areas of biotechnology, information technology, nutritional and agricultural science, and advanced material engineering. The client, RTDS Technologies, provides real-time digital simulation for engineering systems in both software and hardware formats. The client is active in 30 countries and this headquarters facility consists mainly of offices for 35 employees, conference space, and training labs catering to clients and staff.
Clad in dark steel, the building is animated only by a mirrored structural silicone glazed curtain wall. The monolithic bar-shaped building is a quiet but uneasy visitor among an architecturally unchallenging collection of neighbouring buildings. The 200-square-metre steel-frame structure spans a 50-metre pond, destabilizing the business park’s conventional zoning. George Cibinel claims that “the intent was for the building to blur architecture, landscape, water management and sustainability.” Having successfully redefined the lot lines, the team created a building site that planners had overlooked. Although it’s easy to understand the bridge reference, the building does not actually span any existing routes. But spanning the difficult site alone appears to be its raison d’être, and construction of the building could not have taken place were it not for a fortuitous layer of ice below and some innovative thinking.
Frozen ponds in the prairies can make for some effective building sites, reducing the need for complex shoring during the excavation process. Being committed to the realities of a prairie winter, the builders relied upon the temporary grade of the frozen pond, using its icy surface as a place on which to efficiently set the equipment needed for driving piles into the hard ground below. By spring, construction above the melting pond was underway. In one fell swoop, the building attempts to communicate both the innovative nature of the client, and a mysterious intrigue about the lightness of its construction.
George Cibinel considers his office’s integrated design approach with the builder and client as the most effective way to create buy-in for challenging solutions to unconventional building/site problems. “We’ve been practicing integrated design since we began as a small office. But then again, hasn’t every architect?” Cibinel mused when I met him at his Winnipeg office. “It’s about finding value in the collaborations that we depend on.” Cibinel Architects is comprised of 20 staff. As the successor to Corbett Cibinel Architects Ltd., their portfolio includes the award-winning Red River College, the Brandon Fire Hall, and the Manitoba Pavilion designed for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
The interior of this narrow 12-by-84-metre bar of a building is open in plan with an exposed structural system that conveys a sense of lightness. An exposed roof structure sits atop clearly expressed round hollow structural steel columns while the floor-mounted glass wall encourages views to the site below. Mirrored glass simultaneously conceals views to the interior while reflecting both the adjacent context and the pond underneath. These optical illusions alter one’s perception of a pond which appears both below and within the curtain wall itself. Similar efforts to blur the limits of site and building occur throughout the project.
Cibinel’s commitment to a craft-oriented–or even a trade-oriented–made-in-Manitoba approach to his work has produced a portfolio that is strongly influenced by the province’s acclaimed history of modern architecture. Discipline, attention to detail, and a capacity to work within a restrained palette of materials consistently emerges in Cibinel’s work. But the RTDS Headquarters is somehow reminiscent of another architectural canon that belongs to the likes of Jim Strasman and Eb Zeidler, whose projects for a bridge-like cottage at Stoney Lake and Ontario Place respectively, has challenged the notion of “unbuildable sites” with architectural invention. Both projects depend on an integrated sensibility about site and building while investing more in the qualitative experiences of place and less in the singular formal move itself.
This bridge building probably gets more qualitative richness out of its respect for light and the elemental order of architectural sequence than it does from its attempt to span a physical landscape. After all, this is a building that has constructed complexity in a not so overly complex business park, and this may become a central discussion in and of itself. Indeed, when the floodwaters have left Manitoba, the building will remain a bridge to no clear destination above a landscape that appears to be washing away. CA

Peter Sampson is the Principal of Peter Sampson Architecture Studio Inc. in Winnipeg.

Client Smartpark Development Corporation
Architect Team George Cibinel, Todd White, Markian Yereniuk
Structural Crosier Kilgour & Partners Ltd.
Mechanical Epp Siepman Engineering Inc.
Electrical SMS Engineering
Interiors Cecilia Turner
Contractor Concord Projects Ltd.
Area 24,650 ft2
Budget $8 M
Completion January 2010