In Memoriam: Stephen Cohlmeyer, 1946-2021
Remembering a Winnipeg architect with a far-reaching impact on his community.
The classic vision of the architect is as a kind of a Renaissance man, with wide-ranging interests and skills, a gift for intellectual discourse, and of course, a passion for the arts. Such was the case with Winnipeg architect Stephen (Steve) Carl Cohlmeyer, who passed away on June 9, 2021.
Cohlmeyer was a third-generation architect, and the co-founder of Cohlmeyer Architecture, which he led for 40 years. The firm is best known for its work on developing the masterplan for The Forks in Winnipeg, and has completed projects throughout North America, as well as in South America and Africa.
Cohlmeyer was born in 1946 in Lake Forest, Illinois. His father, Robert, was a senior architect at SOM, and his mother, Lois, was the daughter of a prominent Chicago architect, Frank Venning. Cohlmeyer completed a fine arts degree at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he met his future wife, Cynthia, who became a landscape architect and frequent collaborator.
During his architectural studies at Harvard, Cohlmeyer received a draft notice to serve in the Vietnam War. He and Cynthia moved to Toronto in 1970 as conscientious objectors to the war. He carried with him a letter of introduction to Jane Jacobs, who, along with her family, welcomed him and Cindy, becoming lifelong friends. During his time in Toronto, Steve worked at Craig, Zeidler and Strong. Cohlmeyer completed his architecture degree at the University of Manitoba while working for Etienne Gaboury. He also worked occasionally for Robert Allsopp, who had taught Cynthia at the University of Manitoba and started an urban design practice in Winnipeg, before later moving to Toronto and co-founding DTAH.
“What impressed me most about Steve was his intellect,” says Allsopp, who became a friend of the Cohlmeyers. “He was very widely read and saw architects as artists—he was quite a sculptor and painter himself. While he was in touch with what was going on in the architectural world, he was skeptical of fads and fashion in architecture. His foundation was really firm.”
In 1981, Cohlmeyer founded architecture firm Cohlmeyer Hanson with his friend, Bob Hanson. He developed a reputation for his urban design and planning skills, and carved out a place in Winnipeg despite its “old boys’ club” of a few established firms claiming much of the work. Working with Cynthia, the firm was awarded an opportunity to develop the masterplan for the 14-acre Forks site, a historic meeting place for First Nations at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
“Steve and Cindy really started what people consider ground zero at the Forks,” says Paul Jordan, CEO of the Forks since 1991. “Back in the day, the Forks was a burnt-out brownfield; now, we have four million visits a year.” Jordan describes how the duo of designers envisaged the site first and foremost as a vibrant public realm “for people to just come and relax, and interesting things would happen.” For instance, visitors could sit in a plaza, and music in the distance would encourage them to explore the site—a vision different from the more common approach of creating rigidly programmed spaces, such as bandshells for scheduled concerts. “It was the kind of experimental placemaking that was far ahead of its time in the early 1990s,” says Jordan.
Another of Cohlmeyer Architecture’s Winnipeg landmarks is the Upper Fort Garry Heritage Wall, completed in 2016, part of a collaborative, award-winning project with HTFC. This project exemplifies the technical excellence and collaborative success typical of Cohlmeyer’s work.
Cohlmeyer Architecture took on a variety of work throughout Canada, including commercial buildings, libraries, restoration, and correctional services work. Cohlmeyer’s work ranged in scale from the Pocket Suites—20-square-metre rental apartments for disadvantaged adults—to a public space strategy for the UNESCO-designated historic city of Valparaíso, in Chile.
In 2002, Cohlmeyer collaborated with Montreal firm Jodoin Lamarre Pratte on a competition design for the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s cultural and administrative centre. It was shortlisted among five finalists, selected from 112 entries to the design competition. The project was ultimately shelved.
“I was immediately struck by the quality of the man,” recalls Marc Laurendeau, principal at Jodoin Lamarre Pratte, who collaborated with Steve Cohlmeyer over the six-month design period, and later became friends with his family. “He was very talkative, very energetic, very human: a man of integrity.” The design took form as a ring-shaped building set on a sloped site, and including interior columns inclined to resemble trees. “It was technically quite difficult, but Steve pushed through the idea to make it feasible,” says Laurendeau, recalling how Cohlmeyer was gifted and determined in tackling both the bigger planning ideas as well as the details of the design.
Cohlmeyer’s urban design work included planning for San José, Costa Rica, the masterplan for Martyr’s University in Uganda, work on Regina City Square, and planning for many small centres on Vancouver Island. He admired urban theorist Camillo Sitte, and believed in the power of cities created through an accrual of local decisions, rather than through a rigid overarching plan.
He put his belief in good city design into practice with his own office, which he insisted on always maintaining in downtown Winnipeg, despite the mixed fortunes of the core area. He taught at the University of Manitoba, ran art competitions, and was a contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press.
Cohlmeyer was also active in the Manitoba Association of Architects (MAA), including as President of the MAA. He played an instrumental role, along with a select few other members, in a 15-year-long battle to regain the lawful recognition of The Architects’ Act within the province, and to restore the exclusive scope of practice of architecture to professional architects, as detailed in the Act. “He made an incredible contribution to the association and to the profession,” says Judy Pestrak, executive director of the MAA.
At the end of the day, Steve’s greatest passion was for design. “Design was everything,” says his son, architect Daniel Cohlmeyer, who now heads the practice. He notes that his father could complete a building plan at 1/8” scale within minutes on a napkin—“clients loved that.” He would also engage others in the design process. “He liked presenting his thought process, but he was always ready to absorb the ideas of others,” says Daniel. “If there was another approach that was better than his, he would be glad to incorporate it.” Cohlmeyer was also a dedicated woodworker, and did the millwork for his own house as well as pieces for other projects. He made the office’s models in his woodshop. “He believed in the power of the built model beyond any other method of presentation,” says Daniel.
Robert Allsopp says that Steve saw “the history of architecture as a continuum going back several generations”—a vantage point that may be intertwined with his background, coming from an intergenerational family of architects. “He saw the modern movement as an evolution, rather than a revolution,” says Allsopp. “His architecture never lost its sense of tradition, nor its sense of being from a particular place.”
Cohlmeyer was respected among his colleagues as a strong and steady architect, with a knack for problem-solving and for good judgement. “It’s a point of pride that he would speak very quietly, and have people listen closely,” says Daniel Cohlmeyer. “He had the admiration of other architects because he was calm and process-oriented. Whatever the issue at hand, he was very good at taking in information and identifying the problematic.”
Steve Cohlmeyer is survived by his wife and working partner of 52 years, Cynthia; son Daniel and Daniel’s partner Catherine Demers; and their children, Paige and Jules. Also remembering Steve are his brothers, David (with wife Barbara), Jonathan (with wife Maggie), and Chris (with wife Sue).