Urban Twist

PROJECT WEBBSITE, WINNIPEG, MANITOBA

ARCHITECT COHLMEYER ARCHITECTS LIMITED

TEXT PETER SAMPSON

PHOTOS SASA RADULOVIC

Winnipeg’s downtown is under constant scrutiny by its own citizens who search for evidence of revitalization and relevance. It is the big moves that tend to receive the accolades of the Winnipeg Free Press or the city’s morning television shows. Often referring to cranes as “extinct species,” even the Premier’s canned lunchtime rhetoric has it that razed city blocks and cranes would mark a sure sign of progress and success in this city. And so this month, with the city’s single crane having vanished from the downtown skyline, by that account we should expect to hear cries of mourning and public loss as if yet another era of post-progress is about to begin. But if looking upwards in this prairie city proves disheartening, the spaces in between show promise not only of progress in the downtown core, but of a healthy commitment to transition and innovation.

Tucked in between two multi-storey buildings at the edge of downtown, Webbsite is a seven-suite, three-storey condominium built on a sliver of a lot measuring 15 x 40 metres. The site stretches south from Ellice Avenue toward Webb Place and a tree-lined urban square. Over the past decade, a local development initiative, the North Portage Partnership (NPP), has been investing in this area of downtown Winnipeg bounded by the Salvation Army’s Booth College, the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre (see CA, October 2006) and Portage Place. Close to the University of Winnipeg, the neighbourhood has an obvious appeal to young professionals and students alike. In 2003, NPP retained Cohlmeyer Architects to assist in the creation of new housing that could strengthen the neighbourhood.

The site was a derelict lane serving the residences and offices of the Salvation Army. Flanked opposite by a courtyard at the rear of an adjacent apartment building, the underused lot showed potential as an infill site, provided it could be reconfigured. “The success of the infill,” says Jeff Badger, project manager for NPP, “was seen as critical to setting a precedent for downtown living in Winnipeg.” He was committed to making this site work.

As a through-lot, the project’s relationship to the existing urban fabric is provocative and ambiguous. With services at the back of the floor plan, the orientation of the suites takes advantage of fresh air and views over the newly created mews. From Ellice Avenue, the mews is a peephole to the urban square beyond. Within it, street parking is shared with modest front doors, a common walkway, and private patios, all of which feel equally inviting, yet private enough. Overhead, a rhythmic score of boxes defining each suite is syncopated with large sheets of glass and open terraces allowing the living spaces to engage with the new public territory below. The result is neighbourly and intimate.

But this same effort is absent at Ellice Avenue where Webbsite’s at-grade residential side wall feels more like a detriment to the fledgling

avenue. It is a blunt expression along the street, and the project’s capacity to address a rather fundamental urban gesture seems altogether lost. No amount of patterning in the faade’s material treatment can rectify this shortcoming and here, the project feels heavy-handed.

Webbsite is composed of two-and three-storey suites. Marketed to the young urban dweller looking to buy a home under $150K, they are flexible and loft-like in character. Filled with natural light from a two-storey glass wall, suites have open kitchens and upper floors overlooking the living spaces below. The layout of these 600- to 825-square-foot units is expanded with roof terraces created from initial shifts in the volumes. Given the tight footprint, the design is skillful in its ability to address the challenges of the narrow site and expands the potential for denser models of living. Webbsite contributes to the market by making do with modest and marginal means; it has reclaimed a residual site and helped stabilize an otherwise uncertain corner of the downtown.

For Sasa Radulovic, project architect, the success of the project is more elusive: it exists in the strong friendships that have grown between the owners of the suites. “The reasons for a strong community are hard to pin down,” says Radulovic, “[but] architecture has certainly helped to enhance a sense of belonging here. With easy access to patios, public space, and with units sharing the courtyard, higher density alone may have nurtured this condition.” And even though its market- driven name is a playful derivation of Webb Place to the south, perhaps the project name is a subtler allusion to this evolving, tight-knit social web. Webbsite suggests that small and modest strategies to fill in the gaps go far in a city like this — farther, perhaps, than raising the crane. CA

Peter Sampson is the principal of PSA Studio in Winnipeg and teaches architecture at the University of Manitoba.

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CLIENT NORTH PORTAGE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION

DESIGN AND MANAGEMENT TEAM STEPHEN COHLMEYER, SASA RADULOVIC, JOHANNA HURME, STEPHANIE SHAW, JIM WAGNER

STRUCTURAL CROSIER KILGOUR & PARTNERS LTD.

CIVIL MANENCO

ELECTRICAL PC ENGINEERING LTD.

LANDSCAPE CYNTHIA COHLMEYER LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

INTERIORS COHLMEYER ARCHITECTS LIMITED

CONTRACTOR TITANX

AREA 8,000 FT2

BUDGET $800,000

COMPLETION 2006

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