Tectonic Shift

Alloway Reception Centre, Fort Whyte Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Syverson Monteyne Architecture with Carl Nelson Jr.

Located on the site of a former clay mine and cement factory on the edge of the Winnipeg city limits, the Fort Whyte Centre was established in the late 1970s as an environmental education centre. The Interpretive Centre, which was designed by Carl Nelson Jr. with MMP Architects and built in 1983, houses educational exhibits, the Aquarium of the Prairies, the Waterfowl Viewing Room, and a variety of dioramas.

In 2000, with encroaching urbanization creeping ever closer to the site–prompting architects Dean Syverson and Tom Monteyne to describe its location as “just down the road a bit from the new Wal-Mart and within a stone’s throw from a popular new subdivision where two cars live in every driveway”–the Fort Whyte Centre expanded to more than double its original size. This allowed the Centre to secure an aspen forest and add the Assiniboine Tallgrass Prairie and the Bison Prairie, home to a small but growing herd of bison.

Along with this expansion, the Centre’s plans also included the construction of a Visitor Services Building–the Alloway Reception Centre–to provide a variety of services that complement the educational programs delivered in the existing Interpretive Centre. The new facility establishes a gateway controlling access to the overall site and houses the Buffalo Stone Caf, the Nature Shop, meeting rooms and larger spaces available for functions such as banquets and small conferences.

The Alloway Reception Centre–designed by Syverson Monteyne Architecture with the participation of Carl Nelson Jr. early in the design stage–provides a dramatic counterpoint to the original Interpretive Centre. The earlier building responded to the windswept prairie landscape with the simple gesture of an enormous sloping cedar roof facing north, and generous glazing to the south. By contrast, the new building evokes the complexity of the landscape with its variegated material treatment, unorthodox geometry and shifting roof planes.

The building faces the cold north winds with a monolithic wall of Manitoba Tyndal limestone, detailed to resemble dry-laid stone walls and to appear as a geological anomaly on the prairie. This is reinforced by the overall organizational strategy–the delineation of a series of planes, volumes and elements in a dynamic composition. Its apparent randomness intends to suggest that the building form has resulted from tectonic activity at the site, with dynamic soil pressures forcing piles upward out of the ground, causing the roof planes to shift and walls to tilt. “By the time visitors arrive,” the architects write, “the building has been bolted together, patched up, and stabilized.”

The building’s main public space, the reception hall, best expresses this approach. Concrete piles of various heights and diameters form plinth-like bases for the post-and-beam structure of parallel strand lumber supporting the roof. Each of these materials is left frankly exposed, as are the muscular red primer-coloured steel plate connections for the timber structure.

The combination of an elemental material palette and the complex organization bring together themes explored in Canadian architecture of the 1960s and ’70s with more recent formal strategies of fragmentation and disintegration. Whereas buildings from that earlier period confronted the formidable Canadian landscape with equally heroic man-made gestures, the Alloway Reception Centre expresses the overwhelming power of natural forces, which have, the story goes, distorted and transformed the building into its current state.

Whereas the Interpretive Centre functions as a simple, relatively neutral container for the exhibition of educational displays, the Alloway Reception Centre is conceived as an exhibit in its own right. In addition to the explicit landscape-related narrative that underlies its formal qualities, the use of efficient engineered wood products, locally produced components and recycled building materials embody the building’s resource-conscious agenda. Among the more explicit examples of this strategy are the use of locally quarried Tyndal limestone and the fact that all exterior window and door frames are made of cedar recycled from old hydro poles.

Other sustainable strategies include the use of heat pumps extracting energy from the adjacent lake for heating and cooling the building. Natural daylighting is optimized, roof runoff is collected for site watering, and sewage is treated on site in a series of super-aerated lagoons that produce water clean enough to support trout, and even to drink.

Given the Fort Whyte Centre’s history as an industrial site, its proximity to expanding urbanization and its mandate to maintain a fragile native ecosystem, it provides, according to the Alloway Centre’s architects, “a strategic vantage point from which to view the difficult relationship between human and non-human.” The new facility captures the complexity of this relationship and suggests the ultimate supremacy of nature and geology, resulting in a memorable intervention on its prairie landscape. MP

Client: Fort Whyte Centre

Architect team: Dean Syverson, Tom Monteyne, Carl Nelson Jr., Desmond Burke

Structural: John Glanville (foundations and overall design), Russell Brandt (engineered lumber design)

Mechanical/Electrical: SMS Engineering

Landscape: Syverson Monteyne Architecture with Carl Nelson Jr. and Lee Caldwell of Fort Whyte Centre

Contractor: Dominion Construction

Area: 600 m2

Budget: $1.4 million

Completion: June 2000

Photography: As noted