Pieces at Play

Descending into Winnipeg in the dead of winter is the perfect time to test the viability of a lively civic space known as The Forks. The 40-hectare site is situated at the convergence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, and adjacent to downtown Winnipeg. There are three main ownership parcels in The Forks mandate area; The Forks National Historic Site (5 ha) along the Red River; The Forks at the southern half and along the Red River (24 ha); and the City of Winnipeg lands at the north (10 ha). In 1988, The Forks was acquired by three levels of government that created a private corporation to own, develop and plan The Forks as an extension of the downtown. Winnipeg, and more specifically, The Forks, is at a point where the possibility for architectural excellence is about to emerge if the elements of urban design are allowed to mature. The recent additions of the $76 million Provencher Bridges, along with a new hotel to be completed in 2004 are adding to the site’s dynamic. In searching for an architect for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights at The Forks’ north end, urban design issues must be anticipated, or the $270 million museum may overshadow the site. Thus, there are several pieces at play that have the potential to evolve into interesting design opportunities.

The Forks is owned by The Forks North Portage Partnership, a community development corporation owned by the three levels of government. Make no mistake, the site operates as a business to develop the land and invest in public amenities. The Forks North Portage Partnership currently operates the surface parking and parkade, The Forks Market, the ScotiaBank Stage at Festival Park, The Forks Festival Park site, the Historic Rail Bridge and walkway through South Point, The Forks Market Plaza including its public skating rink, The Forks Historic Port, The Riverwalk and the Oodena Celebration Circle. The partnership owns the land that is leased by such tenants as the Johnston Terminal Office and Retail Complex, the Manitoba Children’s Museum, Explore Manitoba, the A-Channel studio facility, and the Canwest Global Performing Arts Centre.

There are three broad areas of interest on the site that include its natural setting, the post-industrial landscape that provides a sense of infrastructure and richness, and the informal aspects to the site such as skating and snowboarding in winter, or skateboarding and cycling in the summer. The challenge in developing such large and complex public spaces is ensuring a balance between the natural environment, existing buildings and adjacent land uses. In order to reflect the size and diversity of the site in the planning process, seven areas have been identified to create a subset of spaces within the greater framework of The Forks. These precincts include: the Market Precinct, the Union Station Precinct, the Festival Park Precinct, the Portage and Main Precinct, the Marina Precinct, the South Point Precinct and the Forks National Historic Site.

The Market Precinct is a primary mixed-use area with plazas and promenades. It has a boutique hotel, parking, and prairie gardens. The hotel will create a new building edge to complete the perimeter of the cobblestone turnaround. The nearby Forks Market is open year-round with restaurants and businesses that sell produce and specialty goods. As an architectural intervention, it offers a landmark and orientation to the visitor. The hub of the urban activity is the adjacent outdoor plaza and skating rink which is active in the winter, while providing for patio seating and live performances in the summer.

Facing the Forks Market is the four-storey Johnston Terminal, formerly a cold storage railway warehouse with a variety of stores and offices. Cohlmeyer describes the effect of the glass-enclosed storefront and steps as a way of breaking down the scale of the site. The Explore Manitoba Travel Idea Centre hinges off the Johnston terminal in a clever way, utilizing the nearly one level of grade change. Nevertheless, the program requirements that respond to the demands of the tourist information centre create some missed opportunities. Behind one prominent curved faade and beneath an ebulient sign reading “Explore Manitoba!”, one can see into office spaces containing mundane partitions, desktop computers, calendars and family photos.

When the water isn’t frozen, there are places to dock private boats, in addition to taking river cruises and renting canoes. From the lighthouse beacon situated in the middle of the Assiniboine River, a Riverwalk extends for more than two kilometres west toward Osborne Village, a popular neighbourhood. Above the entry to the Riverwalk runs the CN Main Line that provides a visual backdrop to the site and runs through Union Station, completed in 1911 by Wayne and Whitmore Architects. The Forks allow various diverse ventures, such as an initiative located beneath Union Station called Growing Prospects Inc., a non-profit corporation established in 1998 in response to the increasing involvement of youth in gang-related activities. A partnership between the community and the Winnipeg Police uses confiscated hydroponic equipment to grow herbs for the local market. The nearby Union Station Precinct will eventually provide a pedestrian link into The Forks and will permit medium-density mixed-use with the potential for workshops, and live/work studios.

The 35.5 m high smokestack of the former Forks C.N.R. Steamplant, which provided power to Union Station and the Hotel Fort Garry, is now refurbished as the A-Channel TV studio. The project was undertaken by Prairie Architects Inc. and XYZ Design Inc., who received a Heritage Winnipeg award for their efforts. Along with the CanWest Global Performing Arts Centre (Manitoba Theatre for Young People) that was completed in 1999, the two buildings set a precedent for a streetscape to develop.

The nearby Provencher Bridges project, completed by Wardrop Engineering with Gaboury Prfontaine Architectes, carries vehicular traffic from Portage and Main across the Red River into the heart of St. Boniface as well as running a nearly-parallel pedestrian bridge connecting people from St. Boniface to The Forks. The two new bridges form Winnipeg’s newest landmark and represent not just a physical, but a social bridging of communities within the city. Replacing the Provencher Bridge that was built in 1917, the vehicular bridge is a 250 m long concrete structure and the pedestrian bridge is a dramatic cable-stayed structure with a 40 m high pylon supporting a 5 m wide pathway. Walking across the bridge at night during a light snowfall was truly beautiful. The night sky provides a wonderful backdrop to the white support cables that splay out across one’s field of vision. However, the real value of the bridges may be to act as an ‘enabling device’ forming an armature for future urban development. At present, the properties at the intersection of Provencher and Tasch boulevards are not achieving their ‘highest and best use’. It is hoped that these two distinctive bridges will provide an axis that will reinforce a connection into The Forks, while encouraging urban development within St. Boniface.

An interesting aspect of the bridge is the introduction of a restaurant toward the middle of the span. This initiative is the result of formalizing the activity of a crpe vendor who once operated on the bridge. The pedestrian bridge is unusual in its desire to introduce the idea of public space and urbanity onto its deck. One may wonder if the experiment to construct a permanent restaurant on the bridge will be worthwhile. Nevertheless, the intentions are clear, the move is daring and the results may offer an unexpected and delightful node of activity for pedestrians.

Upon arriving at The Forks on foot from the Provencher Bridges, one arrives at the Festival Park Precinct that is designed as a public recreational space with parks, plazas, and promenades. With the new Provencher Bridges leading into St. Boniface, a variety of recreational activities may become established, hopefully in a loosely-programmed landscape that will enco
urage all forms of activities.

A brilliant initiative has allowed an ice skating trail to snake through the site and over The Forks Historic Rail Bridge, which was built in 1888. The bridge is also a walking and cycling link to St. Boniface and Norwood Grove. With its massive concrete counterweight that allows it to act as a bascule bridge, the structure is a reminder of the last great railway and industrial boom. The bridge also serves as a poignant marker for the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers-the junction of “The Forks” from which both flow north up to Lake Winnipeg.

The Experience

After a walk through The Forks on a Winnipeg Saturday night with University of Manitoba architecture professor Herb Enns, we visited Neil Minuk at his home of many architectural moments of intrigue, compression and self-assessment. Along with Jae-Sung Chon, (Minuk’s business partner who together, form DIN Projects), Minuk, Enns and I discussed The Forks while National Film Board documentaries on the construction of igloos and canoes flickered in the background. Minuk noted that there was a large thirst for public space in Winnipeg, and the desire for better public spaces doesn’t solely rest upon visionary planning and architecture: it goes much deeper.

Is there a vision for The Forks? When The Forks Market took off in 1989, many Winnipeggers didn’t see the site as a connection to the river. The Forks is a large urban park and representative of a city within its natural context. Chong noted that the value of the site has to be fully-appreciated from the water, and the view from the river offers a First Nations perspective of the landscape. In contrast, the landscape, as appreciated by the colonizer, is taken from the road. Clearly, the infrastructure of the site is dependent on views and space provided by vehicular and pedestrian access, the river and the railway lines. It is essential to experience The Forks’ connection to the river and landscape.

The Challenge

Since 1995, Cohlmeyer Architects have acted as Site Planning Coordinators. As advisors, they have been responsible for long-term planning and design guidelines, policy development and the review of all the projects to be developed at The Forks. Cohlmeyer Architects have engaged the site directly in terms of designing such elements as the York Avenue underpass and some of the light standards. Not all design elements have been under their control, but their role has been to ensure that basic design and planning principles have been followed to fit within a strategic framework. Steve Cohlmeyer, the principal-in-charge, likens the process to a series of small elements which, when combined, create a rich fabric that is evolutionary where “serendipity seems as important as anything else.” Cohlmeyer’s efforts have been anything but serendipitous. His strategy for urban design is to allow people to come to the site and occupy it in a personal way. One should make a public environment and develop a structure conducive to the evolution of a collection of public spaces.

Cohlmeyer is against the broad concept of ‘master planning’ and upholds the idea that the duty of a designer is to advocate incremental strategies that build upon a framework comprising many small-scale events. He looks positively on allowing the “good hand of good government” to initiate projects that protect the public’s best interest, but feels that too much government involvement may stifle the development that he envisions for the area. Successful initiatives can sometimes be inhibited by government projects. This may be a reason to encourage private enterprise that will foster incremental development and mature the evolving urban fabric of The Forks.

The Future

The big question to ask about the future of the site concerns the Human Rights Museum. Will this high-visibility project upset the dynamics of the site? Will its presence provoke more diverse activity on the site and ensure its long-term viability? Ultimately, Cohlmeyer shares the thoughts and concerns of Minuk, Chon and Enns. His “framework for psychic comfort”, as ineffable as it sounds, may provide the brilliance and vision needed for The Forks. Resourcefulness, economy, spontaneity, subtlety can all be found at The Forks. There are many elements already present that seem to work brilliantly, even in forty-below temperatures. Nonetheless, much work needs to be done.