Into the Labyrinth: Warming Hut for Anish Kapoor, Winnipeg, Manitoba

The sculptural hut was inspired by Kapoor’s aesthetic. Photo by Serena Tonnnu

If architecture is always poised between creativity and technical rigour, the same can be said for design pedagogy. Does one give students the freedom to explore on their own, at the risk of wandering too far into the weeds; or does one provide a framework to ensure rigour and proficiency? Teaching that achieves this balance is an art that can take decades to cultivate. A design-build project can be a test of how effective it is, for there is no escaping the end product: out there in public for all to see, as is the case with the University of Manitoba’s annual contribution to Winnipeg’s Warming Huts.

In 2019 this contribution was led by Eduardo Aquino, Chad Connery, Terri Fuglem, and Liane Veness, at the head of a team of forty students. Most students were in third year, but a number of them were graduates of other degrees, completing an Architecture Master Preparation studio. This diverse group proved well-balanced to meet the challenge of designing and constructing, in less than three weeks, a Warming Hut conceived, in theory, to harbour an artwork by Indo-British artist Anish Kapoor.

Taking Kapoor as a subject served several pedagogical intents. It provided a framework and a reference for design decisions not based on the individuality of any of the makers but on the universe of this remarkable artist. The question became not “what do I want?,” but “what would Anish want?” Kapoor is also renowned for his attention to material and craft, which offered another pedagogical
opportunity: to demand the highest level of professionalism, both in research and making.

A bespoke device carves an ice lens inside the hut. Photo by Hanna Henriksson-Rebizant

As part of their work, about half the students took advantage of a studio trip to Portugal to visit Kapoor’s exhibition at Porto’s Serralves Museum, where they experienced his Descent into Limbo. Impacted by this (in Aquino’s words) “elemental shape (the cube), inhabited by an “absence” (a circular hole on the ground)”, and also the memory of Kapoor’s own 2017 Warming Hut, Stackhouse, the design coalesced as a matte cube whose expressionless exterior belies a complex inner world. A wood frame structure enfolds the human body, yet looms unsettlingly over it. As the visitor’s path is bent and compressed on entry, they undergo what student Rachel Laird identifies as a state of “anticipation through delay,” followed by a release as the space opens up into a centre of utter darkness.

To achieve the building in the brief time available, all students contributed to design, and all built, and each took on a third role based on personal expertise: communications, drawings, photography, project management, or writing for the publication that later came out of the project (a student initiative). Five construction captains led shifts working 16 to 18-hour days.

On completion, though, the team realized that this cube was a fragment of labyrinth that lacked a minotaur. The central black space was simply not enough. Under the instructors’ direction, the team began to explore the design of an oculus, intended to bring light from the sky. But the teaching moment here was provided by a group of students, who came forward with an alternate concept: rather than an oculus above,
a lens below. The challenge then became to invent a way, in only a few days, of carving a lens from ice. An implement of wood and mild steel was designed and built, and a method for working developed, to turn the ice into an optical device. The river was no longer just a foundation. It became a well into which the visitor gazed, and from which light, simultaneously murky and clear, filtered up into the heart of the labyrinth.

The booklet WHAK, from which the above images have been drawn, can be purchased from the website of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.

Lawrence Bird (MRAIC) is an architect, planner, and visual artist. He is currently co-editing a book on the Warming Huts with Peter Hargraves and Sharon Wohl, with publication anticipated in 2020.