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Table for Twelve: Conversations in Architecture 1

When I heard the news from the Canada Council for the Arts that we received the Prix de Rome in Architecture, I was at a conference in New York. I bolted out of the auditorium to perform what must have looked incredibly ridiculous: a happy dance in the breakout space combined with some excited OMGs over the phone. Brigitte Desrochers, the Program Officer for Architecture at the other end of the line, was laughing while she kept convincing me that she wasn’t joking. My next call was to the office, telling everyone to pack their bags – we could now fulfill our wish to travel the world in search of catalysts, creators and policies that build, perpetuate and support architecture culture.

It is a dream to have this opportunity. When we started 5468796 Architecture in 2007, Winnipeg was a different place. Most of our peers had fled the city shortly after graduating, either to what we called “Winnipeg East” (London, England) or “Winnipeg West” (Vancouver), in search of a climate that would give a young architecture grad a more hopeful future. Having uprooted ourselves once already – my business partner and co-founder Sasa because of a civil war, me because of love – we were committed to Winnipeg and optimistically believed that given a chance, we could convince someone here, anyone, of the fact that architecture had value. We were joined later that year by Colin, another die-hard Winnipegger. Together, we believed that the discussion and appreciation of architecture that flourished in the city in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s could be resurrected.  

To be honest, we were deathly afraid of getting stuck doing basement and kitchen renos for the rest of our lives. But we were also propelled forward by wanting to see if we could make it – by that nagging ambition in the pit of your stomach that persists until you at least try. By some fluke, we secured a new job every day during our first month of operation and soon hired our first crew member. I remember realizing that anything is possible regardless – or maybe exactly because – of Winnipeg.

It’s a strange city. It’s full of frugal and resilient people, united by the thought that they survived something – winter, mosquitoes, potholes, or losing the Jets. Something about the city’s isolation or difficult conditions has always inspired and supported a vibrant arts scene, delivered by determination and a unique kind of creativity. And yet somehow, architecture was not quite considered part of the arts. The general public was very ambivalent about buildings and dead set against spending tax money on anything but crime prevention and road maintenance. As a result, we learned quickly that in order to have a conversation about architecture, you would first have to have a conversation about how much it costs and if it could be done more cheaply.

When the world economy tanked in 2008, it became even more important to demonstrate our worth by saving our clients money through innovation, sometimes using unconventional construction methods. It became our substance, our core value, to understand our numbers and speak the developers’ language while still advancing architecture and finding opportunities to fit public space into our private clients’ pro formas.

Needless to say, there were a lot of cynical architects around. One told me that “nothing will ever change and you might as well give up now,” when I asked him to participate in a 2009 workshop for MAA members to establish an advocacy organization and better define the value of the profession in Manitoba. Similarly, the new event series “On the Boards” – a monthly peer review of ongoing work among architects, now organized by a group known as Storefront MB – was met with significant resistance.

And yet, followers of architecture in Canada now seem to think that there is “something in the water” in Winnipeg. Three recent projects – the Manitoba Hydro building, the new airport and the Human Rights Museum – have helped bring architecture into focus, but almost more importantly, it’s projects like the Warming Huts competition on the Red River in mid-January, or the RAW:almond restaurant on the ice, that speak directly to the special spirit of Winnipeg. That spirit recognizes the city’s perceived shortcomings as its best opportunities. And fortunately, it turns out that in addition to the cynics, there are a lot of determined and ambitious people in the ‘Peg, spearheading events in someone’s basement over a beer, putting in sweat equity as opposed to a lot of money, and realizing projects that have a huge impact. I believe that now, among local architects, the bar has inched upwards and there are the beginnings of a common accountability. Today, there is a sense that if you produce straight-out crap, you’ll be called on it by your peers, so you better try harder. The centre of gravity from cheap + fast is shifting to, at least, cheap + good…but as far as establishing architecture as part of culture, there is still a long way to go.

546 has always been fully in with both feet, trying to build architecture culture – whether through our work or through the “extracurricular” projects that we choose to take on despite risking our very business. In 2012, together with Jae-Sung Chon, we curated Migrating Landscapes, Canada’s official submission to the Venice Biennale in Architecture. Through Migrating Landscapes, we came to understand that while Canada is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world, it may be paradoxically because of this diversity that a strong architectural identity does not seem to exist. Our exhibition was an attempt to reveal this cultural richness as a strength. The Venice Biennale became a platform through which we were able to not only draw the architectural community together, but also initiate a conversation about taking a bolder – and perhaps more independent – approach to architectural thinking in Canada. I believe that something important was gained: a better foothold for architecture not only in Winnipeg, but hopefully across the country.

Now, with the Prix de Rome from the Canada Council comes not only the opportunity to continue what has started, but also the responsibility to produce a meaningful outcome with tangible results.

For our Prix de Rome project, entitled Table for Twelve, we will be travelling to seven cities around the world over the next year in search of catalysts, organizations and practices that have built architecture culture in their cities and countries. Ultimately, we hope to build a picture of the forces at play that have a positive impact on the perceived value of architecture and learn lessons for strengthening architecture culture in Canada.

Some initial intuitions: In places like Finland and Japan, the appreciation of architecture is deeply rooted in a national identity. In other instances, like the Netherlands in the 1980s and ’90s and in Denmark now, there is a systematic investment in design and architecture as an export commodity. Naturally, municipal and national politics – as well as the economy – play a huge part in all this, and in some cases strong practices in one city seem to have inspired a whole nation. In some locales, grassroots growth appears to have created a significant tipping point in the cultural valuation of architecture. We find the entire phenomenon truly fascinating, both as it relates to our own practice and as a broader question: what kind of work does a particular setting support?

In each city, select participants will be convened for a dinner or an informal evening of conversation. A regional host will help us bring together a table of 12 individuals – including  planners, architects and their clients, local critics, media, poli
ticians, artists and celebrities – to discuss the state of architecture in their city, as well as the policies and work that have gone into creating a strong design culture.

The evolution of these discussions will be broadcast online via Canadian Architect and the Table for Twelve website and blog. Our website will include a platform that allows for connections between participants, as well as with the broader public – encouraging links and ideas to grow exponentially through this network.

The project begins and ends in Winnipeg, home of our office and our hearts. In September, we officially launched the project in partnership with Storefront MB at the Winnipeg Design Festival. In May 2014, Winnipeg will host the RAIC Festival of Architecture, an annual conference that brings together practitioners and industry professionals from across Canada. At the RAIC Festival, our intention is to summarize and disseminate the knowledge gained over our year of travel, research and star-studded dinner parties.

Ultimately, Table for Twelve is about gaining a deeper understanding of how design cultures have evolved around the world, and using this knowledge as a means to further Canada’s architecture culture. Through the invaluable network that will develop as a result of this project, our table will evolve and expand to include far more than 12 people – allowing us to transcend borders, widen our perspective, and promote Canadian expertise to the world.

We can’t wait to get started!

By Johanna Hurme, 5468796 Architecture

September 2013