Book Review: Green Blankstein Russell and Associates—An Architectural Legacy
They don’t make them like they used to. For 72 years, Winnipeg’s Green Blankstein Russell and Associates (GBR) were prolific in ways not possible anymore. This interdisciplinary practice rode the 20th century’s long boom, becoming the largest architectural firm of the prairies.
During my time at the University of Manitoba in the 1990s, GBR was an established architecture firm that students knew a little about, mostly as the architects of the Winnipeg Airport, City Hall and the Centennial Concert Hall. While reviewing this new book, I realized that GBR’s work was everywhere. Their well-mannered and typically medium-sized work has become part of Winnipeg’s infrastructure, in ways locals might miss. With a few other firms, GBR quarterbacked a defining era that shaped the city in the 1950s to 1970s, second only to its commercial district’s Chicago-style construction frenzy that straddled the beginning of the 20th century.
From 1932 until 2004, when the firm was bought by Stantec, GBR designed a dizzying number of buildings. Like a country veterinarian experienced with canaries and cows, GBR were hard to typecast and appear to have said “yes” to every new opportunity. They designed idealistic subdivisions, conservative banks, spare churches, modest houses and no-frills hospitals and offices. Through this large body of work, GBR attempted to give shape to a modernizing liberal democracy, to articulate what Canada and its government saw in the mirror.
Published by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, Green Blanksetin Russell and Associates: An Architectural Legacy is more of a history book than a monograph. The softcover’s collage-like layout inadvertently draws attention to some of its lower-quality black-and-white photographs—understandable, since the GBR principals were likely too busy working to obsess about their archive. The folksy presentation does make the book endearing, the kind you leave on the coffee table.
An opening essay by Brennan Smith paints a succinct picture of an optimistic firm that started during the Great Depression, closed during World War II and experienced the premature death of a founding partner. GBR ploughed ahead, simultaneously addressing and epitomizing the post war cultural changes happening in Canada by creating an office where new immigrants, a higher-than-typical proportion of female to male graduates and architecture’s professional cousins were all hired to work as a family.
The book’s pencil perspective drawings have an analogue charm that describes GBR’s motivations almost better than the photographs do, while reinforcing the friction between the imprecision of their tools and the precision they wanted to design. All mid-century architects were rediscovering perspective drawing in the wake of older architectural revival movements, where the conventions of plan, section and elevation ruled. GBR’s drawings feel like a premonition of contemporary practice, where the rendering of a building sometimes is the building, serving as the savviest connection between the profession and the public.
Despite its slightly detached tone, the book is a one-stop shop to glean what made and defined GBR, isolating the various tendencies that wove all of their work together, and placing the firm’s best projects into the arc of its oeuvre. The book shows over and over how their designs are firmly connected to the ground, without favouring the horizontal or the vertical. These architects seemed to be most interested in plan-based buildings, integrating gridded structures with flattened elevations. GBR’s designs were weighty even when they were transparent, often dividing up potentially massive expanses of glass into human scaled, quilted divisions.
GBR’s work avoided monumentality, yet often became symmetrical mini-monuments anyway, through designs that were object-like. They recreated the strong prairie horizon at the ground plane where the unnatural meets the natural, a result of pragmatically avoiding digging into the sticky gumbo dirt. Mid-century architecture’s interest in floating buildings was not a tool in their arsenal. Their buildings seemed to land on their sites like fridge magnets, sticking to the surface. With architectural thrift, GBR designed relentlessly rectilinear buildings, but gave them humanity by symbolically sweeping the ground clean and then polishing it for people’s use.
As GBR sprouted branch offices in Brandon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, the firm became synonymous with progress. But when you analyze the firm’s ostensibly modernist output, some inconsistencies stand out. The enthusiastic use of local Tyndall Stone cladding—most notably for non-functional fascias inside their Winnipeg Airport and for veneered pilasters outside their Norquay Building—shows that GBR still had one toe in the pre-modernist pool of ornament. It seems the principals had the cultural intelligence to avoid severing ties to older architectural traditions as they raced into the future. When the chunkiness of the 1970s became the new face of modernism, the proportions in GBR’s work of that time seem to make the heaviness of their earlier projects make more sense. The architects strived for buildings that were seen and felt.
The key author of each GBR project is sometimes skimmed over or omitted in the book, but Leslie Russell, David Thordarson and Bernard Brown are tied to the firm’s purest buildings. These projects were unabashedly inspired by Mies van der Rohe, Eliel Saarinen and Marcel Breuer, showing how the intended objectivity of a rational design process could never truly avoid the subjectivity of outside influences. A version of the idea-sharing that influenced GBR also happens today, when architectural mannerisms flit around the world flattening regional differences. The fewer compositional and material ingredients GBR used, the closer their architecture moved towards a truly universal style.
To the contemporary eye, GBR’s work in this book appears to be sort of idling, because the kind of conventional modernism they became good at has mostly diverged into two camps during the last fifty years. One stream became even more minimal and more refined in the service of luxury architecture. The other stream got dumbed down into the expediency and shape-making of our culture’s shortest-lived structures.
You can still spend an afternoon in Winnipeg seeing dozens of GBR’s designs from this book being used and enjoyed. Even if the edginess of their modernism has dimmed, their body of work has endured. Sadly, the now-demolished Winnipeg Airport—my favourite project—didn’t make it, so only lives on in print. It gave clear form to the comfort of being on the prairie ground after flying and abstracted the novelty of flying before you took off. I wish it were still around.
Green Blankstein Russell and Associates: An Architectural Legacy, by Jeffrey Thorsteinson and Brennan Smith, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, 2017.