Telling Details

Text Bernard Flaman

It had the feeling of a momentous event; the lights were dim in the newly reopened Convocation Hall at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and the crowd, with visitors from all four of the western provinces, chatted quietly amongst themselves as they took their seats. On stage, looking elegant and confident, sat Clifford Wiens, ready to give the afternoon keynote address for the “Homemade Modernism” symposium which was held in conjunction with an exhibition of his architectural work at the Mendel Art Gallery entitled Telling Details: the Architecture of Clifford Wiens. With the majority of his designs produced during a 20-year span in the 1960s and ’70s, it was difficult to imagine what he would convey to us that might be relevant for contemporary architectural practice in the year 2005, where the assurance of modernism has been replaced by the multiple and sometimes conflicting concerns of a postmodern society.

The morning events provided a wider context for Wiens’ work by offering an overview of modernism on the prairies. Presentations were given on the work of Douglas Cardinal and Peter Hemingway by Trevor Boddy, Winnipeg architect James Donahue by Neil Minuk, and Calgary architect Gordon Atkins by Graham Livesey, and were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Cheryl Cooper, all of which conveyed the diversity of architectural production in the region during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The Telling Details exhibition, curated by Boddy, represents the highlights of Wiens’ career, and is the first retrospective mounted for a western Canadian architect. Boddy chose 11 buildings from the architect’s oeuvre to convey Wiens’ design thesis, supplemented by student work, furniture design and what must surely be one of the most unique projects for an architect, a tractor-drawn earth scraper for Schulte Industries, communicating the breadth of interest and the multi-disciplinary nature of his education and design work. The bright yellow earth scraper was parked near the front entrance of the gallery, a curious welcoming artifact. Once inside, the exhibition began with a ski lodge design completed during Wiens’ fourth year of study at the Rhode Island School of Design, a chair prototype and a bright red wall with biographical information and three silver Massey Award medals mounted in a row. From there, the projects were arranged in roughly chronological order starting with the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Whitewood (1959), the Kramer Residence near Lebret (1962), the IPSCO Steel offices north of Regina (1960), and the John Nugent studio in Lumsden (1961). The next group began with the Highway Campground at Maple Creek (1965), the Heating and Cooling Plant at the University of Regina (1967), the Silton Summer Chapel (1969), the Spiral Teepee Park Shelter (1970), and the Nakusp Hot Springs Resort in British Columbia (1972). The last two projects display a dramatic leap in scale–the CBC Studios in Regina (1983) and the unbuilt National Gallery of Canada competition entry (1977).

The nature of modernist architectural drawings–simple, direct and often without colour–combined with the crisp black and white photos typical of the period present a challenge for any curator wishing to engage a broader audience beyond just architects. To make the exhibition more accessible, Boddy included a series of videos filmed at several of the building locations during the summers of 2004 and 2005, many with Wiens narrating and interpreting the buildings. The walls of the gallery were painted a soft grey that was particularly compatible with the black and white photographs. He also structured the exhibition around a series of extraordinary models, several built especially for the exhibition by Wiens himself and in the case of the Nugent Studio, supplemented by miniature metal sculptures by the client, John Nugent. Ray Pradinuk and Bob Friesen, former employees of Wiens and now with Stantec’s offices in Vancouver and Regina respectively, volunteered resources to repair several original models including the Kramer Residence and the University of Regina Heating and Cooling Plant.

Of the more than 100 projects completed by Wiens’ firm, including a series of schools, creameries and fire halls, the carefully selected group presented in the gallery provides a glimpse of the architect’s mindset; they represent Wiens’ masterworks. Seeing this group of buildings together in one place, supported by such a comprehensive level of documentation, questions begin to arise. What makes this series of seemingly simple buildings so compelling? Is this “prairie modernism” and why? What connects these buildings to one another when they each look so different? The answers begin to emerge as the drawings, videos and models reveal an underlying complexity and richness. By starting to connect the dots, it is possible to discern a series of common forms: the Kramer residence, Whitewood Church and the Heating and Cooling Plant share rectangular plans and A-frame roofs; the Heating and Cooling Plant and the Nugent Studio share a similar, partially earth-bound section; the Nugent Studio, the Teepee Park Shelter and the Nakusp Hot Springs Resort share circular plan forms; and finally, some of the structures at the Maple Creek Highway Campground and the Silton Chapel share square plans with roofs supported on a rotated cross structure.

Pondering the three buildings that were awarded Massey Medals, and the essence of Wiens’ architecture becomes clear. The Heating and Cooling Plant, the Silton Chapel and the Nugent Studio all share similarities in spite of the fact that they serve radically different programs and are formally and materially unique. All three exhibit strong, simple forms and ignore modernism’s dogmatic side and the dictum of flat roofs; they incorporate devices that filter the strong prairie sunlight and they all establish a delicate relationship with the landscape. Most striking, however, is the way each building springs from the combination of a structural and an architectural idea, beginning with a close analysis of tension and compression elements that are resolved with architectural details of startling invention. It is these “telling details” that inspired the name of the exhibition.

The Heating and Cooling Plant rises from the flatter-than-flat Regina terrain in the same direct way that a barn or grain elevator appears on the prairie landscape. The precast concrete A-frame structure is tied together by a series of post-tensioning cables and not only forms the roof structure, but also supports the cooling towers. The north and south end walls are glazed with demountable translucent glass that shade the interior and also glow symbolically at night.

The Nugent Studio, sited on a bench of land on the north slope of the Qu’Appelle Valley, was inspired by the concrete tensile shell structures of Mexican architect Felix Candela. The casting foundry is circular in plan and partially sunken into the earth with dry-laid fieldstones covering the lower portion of the interior. The roof is a conical form constructed of pre- tensioned, thin-shell concrete. Next to the foundry is a lower section where the flat roof, covered in planting, is composed of precast concrete sections infilled with site-mixed concrete to allow the roof to negotiate the fan-shaped plan form. Sections of concrete culverts are used for the window openings, illustrating the combination of manufactured elements with crafted elements that characterizes the overall nature of the structure.

The Silton Chapel, sited in a similar fashion to the Nugent Studio, on a bench of land just below the top of the valley at Saskatchewan Beach, exhibits perhaps the most sublime connection of a building to the prairie landscape. The summer chapel is composed mainly of a pyramidal roof supported by glue-laminated cross beams positioned at the centre points of each side of the roof–rather than at the corners–with one beam appearing to engage the upward slope of the hillside. A tension rod in the centr
e of the pyramid conducts the forces from the connection point of four beams to the apex of the pyramid and down the slope of the roof, transferring these forces to a point on the beam nearer the concrete foundation supports. The corners of the roof edge beams are mitered and connected with hidden metal splines and countersunk bolts. The compression plate at the peak of the pyramid that accepts the tension force of the visible centre rod also picks up four hidden tension rods connected to the bolts that join the roof beam at the corners. This allows the corners to be levelled and for the entire pyramid to be post-tensioned, creating a rigid three-dimensional space frame. The building reveals itself in stages as visitors walk down the stone path: first the roof, its supporting structure, the cast concrete baptismal font and vestment room, and finally, a large glacial-erratic boulder as the altar.

All three buildings delight the senses with their authenticity, and defy photographic documentation. It is impossible to document the surprise that one experiences when entering the foundry at the Nugent Studio and realizing that the concrete roof appears to float on a continuous glass clerestory encircling the entire space, supported by a delicate network of reinforcing bars; or the uncertain feeling while standing under the seemingly unsupported corner of the roof at the Silton Chapel. In the end, Wiens’ keynote address was inspiring. He began with anecdotes about his formative years growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, including stories about him and his brother Burt driving holes for fence posts with a crowbar. The incongruity between his own physical strength and the unyielding earth required invention for almost every task and also caused him to observe and analyze the forces required to start the hole and drive the post. Wiens also spoke about his love of driving in one of his many automobiles, most notably an early 1960s Bentley, a memorable vehicle–especially for Regina–and one that expresses his design appreciation. Both stories encapsulate the source of Wiens’ brand of “prairie modernism”: an astonishing capacity for invention, a love of pragmatic problem-solving, a sensitivity to the landscape, and a sophisticated approach to structure and form.

Telling Details: The Architecture of Clifford Wiens tours across Canada, and will appear at the Cambridge Art Galleries in late 2006/early 2007, Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery in mid-2007, and at Winnipeg’s Plug In Gallery in late 2007.

Bernard Flaman is the Heritage Architect for Heritage Resources, Department of Culture, Youth and Recreation, Government of Saskatchewan, Regina.