Modern Ambitions

An exhibition and catalogue on Winnipeg modernism explores the history of one of this country’s strongest and most successful efforts to create an innovative and contemporary city from 1945-75.

TEXT Christopher Macdonald

The past decade has seen a number of considered reviews and critical appraisals chronicling the first expressions of modern architecture across Canada,1 offering evidence of initial enthusiasm leading quickly to the determination of varied and confident local idioms. The current exhibition and accompanying monograph, Winnipeg Modern: Architecture 1945-75, provide a welcome expression of this phenomenon observing the distinguished architectural production of postwar Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s achievement in this context is especially vivid, in part due to the unique contribution made by John A. Russell in his formulation of the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture and active mentorship of a generation. As well, the city is fortunate in that a number of seminal buildings remain largely intact and continue to contribute to the manners of current city life. With a first cycle of significant restoration begun–specifically the John A. Russell Building and the Manitoba Health Service Building2–this is an unquestionably opportune moment to take stock of Winnipeg’s modern legacy in both material and critical terms.

Equally timely in this regard is the ability to access the archive of photographer Henry Kalen.3 Contributing to the strengths of both exhibition and monograph is extensive recourse to Kalen’s remarkable contemporary images. As elsewhere, the construction of photographic images was instrumental in popularizing early modernism, and Kalen’s images are meticulously composed expressions of a generation. The domestic interiors–complete with well-groomed children–are reminiscent of Julius Shulman, while his handling of insistent orthogonal logic in a strict pictorial frame draws comparison with Ezra Stoller photographs of the same epoch. Along with a myriad of other contemporary photographs and documents, The Winnipeg Modern project offers an unprecedented collection of forceful images that provide central focus to the exhibition and generously illustrate the various critical writings.

The exhibition itself provides a vivid and deliberately populist account of the era’s architecture, emphasizing the persisting virtues of the work and its embedded values. Set within the upper galleries of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, clearly organized photographic panels and table-height vitrines are interspersed with furnishings and other artifacts of the period–all deliberately disengaged from gallery walls painted for the occasion in polychromatic hues. Upon entry, the installation is animated by a film loop extolling the virtues of design and in particular modern design. Setting the tone for the installation, it reveals a world in which utility trumps style, caught up in a heady broth of protestant instrumentality. Both film and exhibit point to design’s unassailable capacity to enrich. While the material portrays a canon of seminal architectural projects, it never loses sight of their implication in the production of contemporary furniture, interiors, artwork and even clothing. From coffee pot to chaise, from the laundromat to the ice cream stand, this is an architecture lodged in everyday life even as it draws on external discourse and aspires to high levels of distilled abstraction.

A most engaging element of the installation–unfortunately one of the very few elements absent from the Winnipeg Modern publication–occurs in the form of an unbroken frieze surrounding the exhibition material: a frieze constituted by the text of a 1948 poem by Margaret Laurence entitled “North Main Car.”4 While the tone of the photographs and artifacts encircled by the text are vigorous in their optimism and clarity of purpose, Laurence writes persuasively about the messy complexity that constituted Winnipeggers’ daily lives at the time. Hers is a city that includes petty prejudice, slaughterhouses, hypocritical clergy, memories of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and the constant battle against a harsh and unyielding nature. In the context of the exhibit, her exploration of the city’s “savagery and blemishes” stands as silent witness to the rather different realities that were also being played out over the period of 1945-1975. This was, after all, an epoch that could expedite the tragic Residential Schools program simultaneous with the creation of the lucid and optimistic works observed in the Winnipeg Modern project.

While an exhibition format may inhibit sustained critical probes, the writing of Winnipeg Modern invites recourse to the more complex set of circumstances surrounding the work. Herb Enns’ own contributing essay prefaces observations concerning the architecture with an encapsulated history of human settlement in the Winnipeg region. This serves as a pointed reminder that the palpable authority of this work is founded upon one very particular landscape sensibility. The relationship of European colonization to the “new world” is perhaps nowhere experienced in such dramatic terms as it is across North America’s Great Plains, and certainly in Canada’s contemporary experience, the ethos of “dominion” largely persists.

This strain of broad, even oblique enquiry is also apparent in the essays by historians David Burley and Kelly Crossman. These contributions to Winnipeg Modern step back from the formal and spatial qualities so compelling in the photographic documents, drawing attention to the role of modern design within the Winnipeg community and to related issues of local economic realities, and urban and social planning. As with much of the written commentary, readers unfamiliar with the city itself will find direct comparisons and contrasts that refresh a perhaps more intimate knowledge of their own local arenas.

Certainly one striking attribute of the work is its sheer authority. Whether in part due to reliance on the strength of the photographic imagery–plans are few and incidental–the work as a collection exudes the confidence both of its designers and of the institutions and individuals who provided patronage. This is not an architecture borne of public consultation and design charrette but of singular imagination and certainty. Interestingly, both Burley and Crossman draw specific attention to shifting expectations of the architectural profession that occurred during the period in question, as the figure of the singular artist was transformed to more corporate and complex associations of collaboration.

This extreme level of resolve that is so eloquently portrayed throughout Winnipeg Modern might in fact be taken as a cipher for a social structure, a manner of operating in the world and a sensibility of entitlement. Two essays that speak directly to the specific trajectories of key protagonists of the era–Faye Hellner on Etienne Gaboury5 and Terri Fuglem on Gustavo da Roza–suggest that although a professional community may be highly local, it will inevitably evoke the intractable figure of heroic individuality that is so deeply embroiled in any larger account of modern architecture. Similarly, the remaining two texts–Bernard Flaman’s account of the Winnipeg International Airport and Serena Keshavjee’s of the University of Winnipeg’s Centennial Hall–discuss the many complex accounts of local production, set within topical developments in both national and international practice.

The final element of both exhibition and writing brings with it a conspicuous element of vibrant and current colour. A photographic essay by Martin Tessler observes a number of Winnipeg projects in situ on a lingering prairie afternoon. His images capture the same taut regard for horizon and sky as when these buildings were originally conceived. While the images accentuate the argument for the continued significance of this remarkable modern work, they inadvertently point
as well to a certain sense of isolation that falls out of their sublime clarity. Some reconciliation of modernism’s singular, utopian desires with past traditions of settlement, building and rich social texture has formed one central–and still unresolved–focus for the generation that followed the accomplishments of this first generation of modern practitioners.

Lucid and comprehensive reviews such as this can only hone contemporary efforts to enrich architecture’s palette of concerns and give some urgency to the need to maintain exemplary projects in the future landscape. The writing is hugely informative, consistently articulate, and if the Winnipeg Modern text lacks something of the clear vision of the exhibition, its varied probes in and around the topic are unquestionably stimulating and engaging. The vivid illumination of this fertile moment in place and time is a gift: a statement of appreciation and honour that in turn offers confident and provocative inspiration.

Chris Macdonald is the former director of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, a curator, critic and sometimes practitioner.

1 The role of the Canada Council for the Arts, the ongoing initiatives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the enthusiasm of Canada’s Schools of Architecture have been instrumental in establishing a critical mass of material in and around this important historical moment.

2 Designed by Smith, Carter and Katelnikoff, and Libling, Michener and Associates, respectively (both completed 1959).

3 The Archive is now included as a Special Collection in the Library at the University of Manitoba.

4 Referring to contemporary Winnipeggers and the circumstances surrounding postwar optimism, Laurence writes: “If the past weaves the future on its loom, this city’s tapestry should flower from threads dipped in dyes of every land’s sorrow, deepened to wisdom.”

5 One curious omission in the project is the fine St. Boniface Cathedral (1972) by Etienne Gaboury. This single project speaks directly to the potential for modernism to take on subtle issues of site and history while maintaining its preoccupation with contemporary technology and shifting social priorities and could, perhaps, have made an interesting contrast to the dominant ethos on display.