Heart of Glass

TEXT Herb Enns

PHOTOS Julie Epp, David Kressock

The reconstruction of the John A. Russell Building at the University of Manitoba (1959) by LM Architectural Group, Bockstael Construction Ltd., and the University of Manitoba’s Physical Plant is one of the most notable Modernist restorations in Canadian architectural history. As water leaked through ceilings and walls with every prairie thunderstorm, the need for a major replacement and upgrade project became evermore apparent. The deterioration of crude first-generation extruded aluminum storefront framing systems, the breakdown of seals within early versions of insulated glazing units, and the destabilization of asbestos fibres from the spray-on ceiling finishes made for a toxic and patently unsustainable brew. New technologies addressing thermal performance criteria and energy conservation, continuity of air barriers and air tightness, pressure equalization and water infiltration control, environmental health concerns, and light filtration rendered the inventive 1959 exterior wall assembly quaint and obsolete.

On the surface, the restorative strategy seemed to be matter-of-fact– follow the existing drawings, replicate the original proportions, use matching surrogate materials, and upgrade the envelope’s environmental performance. At the project’s inception, little was known about the full extent of possible technical challenges. Since the building systems employed were largely unproven and newly conceived, the eventual damage and decay, the limited lifespan of the framing assembly, the extent of mould abatement required, and the carcinogenic risk of an asbestos fibre-seeded building were unforeseen. To paraphrase commentators on the war in Iraq, “. . . they didn’t know what they didn’t know!”

In order to answer some of the more basic questions as to what went wrong, it may be useful to paraphrase the technological landscape of 1957-1959, and to track the transformation of post-World War II Modernist construction systems as the building was being conceived and constructed. The exterior wall of the original faade was built of aluminum extrusions and glass cladding components. These were attached to traditional wood-frame infill walls braced between the cast concrete and concrete/metal pan floors. The courtyard walls were more visibly free of load-bearing capacity, with interior columns expressed independently of the faade. Inspired by the aesthetic liberation of space and ample access to light, the inventions and refinements in aluminum and glass made for a minimal, transparent, efficient, mass-produced, self evident, and versatile cladding system.

There are several western North American examples of “curtain walls” that predate the Russell Building. The Boley Clothing Company Building at 12th and Walnut Street in Kansas City, Missouri by Louis S. Curtiss incorporated multi-storey panels of glazing as early as 1908. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower (1956) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, was wrapped in glass and steel frames. The 1955 Dafoe Library at the University of Manitoba provides evidence of the advance of glazing systems in the west.

The primary distinctions between projects like Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House (1952) in New York and the Russell Building involved material innovation. While eastern Modernist projects relied on steel-channel framing with stainless steel caps, the westerners were inventing extrusions of non-ferrous lightweight aluminum. It was in Kansas City in 1906 that Patents 820,438, 837,640 and 846,343 were issued to the Kawneer Manufacturing Company for storefront construction. From 1942 -1945, Kawneer was fully devoted to the manufacture of aluminum airframe sub-assemblies. However, following the war, they shifted production from aircraft to architectural fabrication, and introduced the first unitized aluminum curtain wall in 1956. While the Russell Building was not the first of its kind, its architects were certainly early adopters.

There were other important developments in building material technology following World War II. In 1945, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) introduced Twindow double-paned insulating glass. The manufacturer’s stamp in the glazing unit seals of the Russell Building is “Canadian Thermopane-1959,” and while the lineage of that company is difficult to trace, it points to Toledo, Ohio, where, in 1946, the Libbey-Owens-Ford Thermopane factory was opened to manufacture insulated window glass. In 1901, it was Edward Libbey who established the Toledo Museum of Art–recently expanding into the Glass Pavilion by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA–which houses the original Libbey Glass Company Collection. Pilkington Glass invented float glass in 1959, a process that gradually replaced the polished plate glass of the Russell Building in 1962, and in this case, the Russell windows were the last of an era.

Cement asbestos and asbestos insulation were common in the post-World War II era. In using it as a backing material for translucent ground glass panels, the designers were appropriating a low-cost industrial material as the visible exterior finish for a relatively high-profile and sophisticated project. Its removal was mandated by new health standards.

The remediation of the Russell Building has been a technical success. Bearing in mind compromises to air infiltration with the retention of the operable units (the Building Envelope consultants recommended the building be entirely sealed), and the absence of Low-E coatings in the courtyard glass (contravening University policy) in order to maximize transparency, the architects, contractors, and clients achieved a fine balance.

Wonderfully reincarnated in the renovation is the precise calibration of the geometric order, clear visual access within the core of the building across the spaces linked to the courtyard, and the colour and texture of most of the interior finishes. EQ3, a Winnipeg-based international manufacturer and retailer of modern furniture and accessories, has donated furniture–most of it designed by Faculty of Architecture graduates–for the student lounge.

One significant oversight, for which all participants in the process (including the author) bear some responsibility, was the exclusion of Professor Grant Marshall from discussions of the interior details. We discovered–too late–how finely and subtly the discrete finishes and furnishings of the interiors had been honed and perfectly tuned to the ambitions of clarity, simplicity, and technical innovation. Marshall’s role as a sophisticated interior accomplice to Winnipeg’s Modernist architects has since been confirmed.

At the festive rededication of the John A. Russell Building on Friday, September 15th, 2006–with invited guests including Professors Peter Forster (who was hired in 1959 to teach at the original building) and Doug Gillmor (a member of the 1950s design team led by Jim Donahue)–John Russell’s son Barry evoked the memory of his father. The senior Russell was, as his son remembered, a genius at local, national, and international public relations, gifted in setting high academic standards, and dedicated to spreading goodwill amongst all of the arts in Winnipeg. Russell was one of the most demanding, thoughtful, and savvy Deans to lead a school of architecture in Canada. The following evening, Winnipeg band The Weakerthans played to a sold-out house at the Burton Cummings Theatre, performing One Great City–with the primal “I hate Winnipeg” refrain–from their album Reconstruction Site. Winnipeg–where dormancy is a thing of beauty–is a culturally intense, seemingly vacant, profoundly social, hypercreative, love/hate city. The John A. Russell Building is its Modernist glass heart.

Herb Enns is the director of the Experimental Media Centre, University of Manitoba, and a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.

PROJECT John A. Russell Building Exterior Envelope Upgrade, Winnipeg, Manitoba

CLIENT University of Mani

ARCHITECT LM Architectural Group

ARCHITECT TEAM Terry Danelley, Ken Duchnycz, Michael Farion, David Kressock, Vince Kwiatkowski, Lloyd Mymko, Nadine Roch, Darrell Sawatzky, Greg Tomaszewski, Wendy Zachar

STRUCTURAL Crosier Kilgour & Partners

MECHANICAL SMS Engineering Ltd.


INTERIORS Environmental Space Planning

CONTRACTOR Bockstael Construction Ltd.

AREA 48,300 FT2


COMPLETION Spring 2006