RAW:Gimli, Manitoba

A simple hut sits in a wind-swept landscape. Materials: wood, white tarpaulin. Overhead, a soulful prairie sky. Beneath, ice: a frozen membrane, stretched across frigid water. The triangular form seems to huddle against the wind; behind it similar, crouched forms are scattered across the snow. Within this building, an entirely different environment unfolds. Thirty diners, who have arrived as couples and small groups, sit on either side of a long table. It is warm compared to the cold lake outside, but not too warm: some of the diners are still wearing sweaters, some are down to t-shirts. The table between them is arrayed with food and drink, and the air crackles with conversation and laughter. This is RAW:Gimli, a restaurant on the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg that glimmered briefly—for ten days—in January before being disassembled and returned to its source. It is perhaps a transcendent architectural expression of the old ecological trope to reduce, reuse, recycle.

RAW:almond at sunset. Built earlier this year on the riverbank at the Forks in Winnipeg, the gently rounded structure is a reciprocal frame, its baltic birch plywood components 
re-used from previous iterations. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

The RAW:almond pop-up restaurants have been set up at sites across this province and further afield, over the past five years. They share an approach to architecture that is at once sensitive to event, evocative and sensual in concern, and cognizant of social and cultural setting. Each one inventively yet simply involves the sustainable re-use of its construction materials. In all of these respects, the buildings resonate with the approach to the food served in them: avoiding waste, finding richness in simplicity, imaginatively celebrating local specificity, and drawing on an international outlook.

Set among an array of ice-fishing huts, RAW: Gimli takes vernacular culture as its starting point. Its design is derived from two basic volumes: that of a boat house, which forms a central spine, and also of a typical fishing shack, which forms the wings projecting from the spine. The simplicity of the masses is intentional: the designers wanted to provide a necessary sense of weight to what is otherwise a perforated volume.

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RAW:Gimli, built for ten days this winter on the shores of Lake Winnipeg about an hour north of Winnipeg. Photo by Simeon Rusnak.

Designers Joe Kalturnyk and Chad Connery, worked with engineer Jon Reid of Wolfram Engineering to apply their design approach to the canon of neo-Brutalism in its use of raw materials, simple masses, and inventive detailing. Like the vernacular architecture it is based on, the design makes shrewdly pragmatic use of available resources. It cost virtually nothing in materials, as supplier Rona provided the wood with the understanding that the materials were to be returned undamaged to the local store.

The structure was accordingly designed with disassembly in mind. With the exception of the plywood kitchen wall and some flat roof elements, all members were 12’ or 8’ 2×4 dimensional lumber, because those lengths coincided with the approximate dimensions of a boat house and shacks. There were almost no off-cuts, and no screws or nails were used. Instead, the pieces of lumber are strapped together by tie-downs in tension, and pinned to the ice with rebar staples. As a result, virtually all the wood has been available for re-use.

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Space heaters in all the installations keep the diners warm. Photo by Simeon Rusnak.

This sustainable strategy took on a human cast in practise. As the builders dismantled the structure, they were approached by a local resident who offered to work for wood: he would help with clean-up if he could take away the materials afterwards to incorporate in his own off-grid greenhouse. An agreement was struck: 80 percent of the materials went back to Rona, and the remainder to the fisherman. So, materials from the structure are destined to pop up again in multiple construction sites around Gimli.

Kalturnyk—the former curator of RAW:Gallery of Architecture and Design in Winnipeg, conceived the idea of a temporary restaurant on a snowy river in 2013, along with Mandel Hitzer, the chef at Winnipeg’s acclaimed deer + almond restaurant. The end result was RAW:almond,  a restaurant which exists on the Assiniboine River for one month out of the year. As their vision became a reality, it cemented and invented tropes that have come to characterize architectural events in Manitoba—from the ephemeral structures in a wintry public space of the annual Warming Huts (which preceded RAW:almond), to the extra-long table where strangers meet and dine side-by-side, adopted by Table for 1200 (which came after).

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The 2017 RAW:almond in Winnipeg was also built with reused plywood components from previous iterations. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

The first RAW:almond, in 2015, was built by Joe Kalturnyk entirely of tube-and-clamp scaffolding. Since 2017, RAW:almond has taken the form of a pillow-like vault generated by a single repeating structural element. Kalturnyk worked with Jon Reid of Wolfrom Engineering to create a reciprocal frame from 4’ x 8” strips of 3/4” baltic birch plywood, which erects itself as each new element is added.

Kalturnyk and Hitzer connect their work with the social and environmental development of their locations. This was one of the reasons to translate the concept to another site, beneath the northern lights. RAW: Churchill, which has operated for a week in March every year since 2016, inserts a temporary transparent vinyl and plywood structure into the massive stone Prince of Wales Fort in Manitoba’s far north.

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The structural framework is functional, economical, and quick to erect—and creates a dramatic interior for each restaurant. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

A general appreciation of the impact this project had on a rural area encouraged Kalturnyk and Hitzer to translate the project yet again; from this sprang RAW:Gimli, on a frozen lake an hour’s drive from Winnipeg. Going even further afield, in the fall of 2017 the pair created RAW:Tokyo, a temporary restaurant whose interior is a cloud of curtains designed by Studio RAP from the Netherlands.

The RAW restaurants embody a consistent strategy: the creation of a rich environment from simple gestures and components; sensitivity to a local specificity; yet with that, the potential to move, and be translated across different locales. These dispositions, along with a focus  on the life they support, could be seen as characteristic of pop-up or event-based architecture today. They can be traced back to the earliest examples of architecture, which were malleable and mobile. Interestingly, these attitudes are also valued by the community of chefs who find  a temporary home in the RAW restaurants each year. Sustainable production and a regionally-specific but globally-informed cuisine have  become central concepts for many of these chefs.

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The 2016 iteration of RAW in Churchill, Manitoba. The Churchill iteration has been hugely popular with international travellers eager to see the Northern Lights in a unique built environment. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

One such is Christie Peters, a Saskatoon-based restaurateur invited  to RAW:almond’s 2018 installation on the Assiniboine River (others have come from as far afield as California, Texas, and Iceland). Two evenings this January she prepared and served her work beneath RAW:almond’s vaults—reciprocal frames, clad in the same white insulate used in Gimli. Though Peters apprenticed in Vancouver, Amsterdam and San Francisco, her food is inspired by Saskatchewan’s landscape and history. A single rosehip in a cup of snow is a fitting opening to a meal that will warm the diners, perched as they are on fur-topped stools, feet on the ice floor. Early courses re-think prairie settler staples—the perogie and cabbage roll—in a treatment studded with sea buckthorn, beets and wild rice.

Deserts are garnished with berries, rye, wild sage, and even fir—all grown or foraged locally. Architects will recognize the sentiment in Peters’ words:   “I think doing a lot with little is an important mantra for our time.”

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Earlier versions used tube-and-clamp metal scaffolding, including Winnipeg’s 2015 installation. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

In fact, she makes a connection between the architecture of RAW and the simplicity of her ingredients: “There are so many structurally sound  repeating elements in nature, and simplicity in food also mirrors nature by letting the ingredient shine in its most natural form … having the RAW structures be reusable mirrors the future of food culture in this day and age. It is important to create less waste, and in the restaurant industry we can’t afford not to.” Sustainability of practice runs deep with many chefs— even unused fat by-product is turned into soap for the restaurants The Hollows and Primal that Peters runs with her partner, Kyle Michael.

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The 2016 iteration of RAW in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Jacqueline Young.

Like Kalturnyk and Hitzer, Peters values the social impact of her work—for example, bringing life to a desolate part of the city. Food creates community on many levels. RAW:almond has forged a community of chefs who previously were, at best, strangers; at worst, rivals. And of course there is the community sharing the meal. “Bringing people into a certain moment and place, so that time stops and they are transported, is magical,” says Peters. This is also one of the first roles of architecture. And it is the role of the RAW restaurants which show an awareness of not just natural but also social environments, ecologies of culture as well as nature, sustenance as well as sustainability. Like the architecture indigenous to this region, RAW:almond will move on—and return.

Client RAW:Almond | design Team Joe Kalturnyk, Jon Reid | architects of record (code review for Winnipeg installation) AtLRG architecture structural/Mechanical Wolfram Engineering | Area 2,128 sq. ft | Construction budget $30,000 (not including recycled materials) | Completion January 2018

Lawrence Bird, MRAIC is a visual artist, planner and architect at Ager Little Architects in Winnipeg. Photography by Jacqueline Young and Simeon Rusnak.