Viewpoint (April 01, 2008)

Rising from the muddy waters of the Red River, Winnipeg has been referred to as a city of warehouses, a portal, and an essential hub for North American commerce. True to form, this prairie town remains a cultural and infrastructural crossroad that–despite decades of shifting trends in global manufacturing, rail and intermodal transportation infrastructure–is a city where ideas continue to be incubated, tested and exchanged in both academic and professional environments.

Winnipeg’s original commercial history can be traced back to the Exchange District, an area comprising 20 city blocks that was declared a National Historic Site in 1997 for its key role as a centre of grain and wholesale trade, finance and manufacturing in two historically important periods in the city’s development: from 1880 to 1900 when Winnipeg became the gateway to Canada’s West, and from 1900 to 1913 when the city’s architecture rivalled that of Chicago. Toward the end of Winnipeg’s Golden Age in 1913, the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba was founded. One of the earliest architecture programs in Canada, the school originally provided a solid Beaux-Arts education, reflecting the spirit of the times. However, John A. Russell’s arrival as Dean in 1946 enabled the school to make the necessary but radical shift to become a leading school in North America, teaching Modernist principles while allying itself with other American and European architecture schools.

Today, the school is entering another significant period in its illustrious history where its Prairie Modern legacy is being challenged with a more theoretical approach to architectural education. Led by UK-born Nat Chard, incoming Head of the Department of Architecture, the University of Manitoba is pushing for what it views as a more rigorous curriculum where students interview with instructors before they are selected to engage in year-long design studios. Chard is seen as a leader, emerging from the model of teaching at the Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College London where, according to its current Director, Iain Borden, “people constantly design, invent, explore, write, draw, teach, speculate, theorize, film, map, critique, analyze and imagine.” Is this not just another valid form of incubating and exchanging ideas?

Beyond the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg has many empty sites begging for development. There is much work to be done. For example, rising above the downtown is the new 22-storey Manitoba Hydro Building, a project that will soon become a benchmark for cold-climate design in Canada. Designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects with Smith Carter Architects and Engineers as the architects of record, the building will incorporate a host of sustainable features, notably its naturally ventilated doubleskin system. The all-glass office tower is expected to be 66 percent more energy-efficient than the Model National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings. And over at The Forks, Gail Asper’s dream to build the Antoine Predock-designed Canadian Museum for Human Rights is nearing its fundraising target of $265 million.

With the optimism of new construction and revitalization in Winnipeg, it should not be suggested that Manitoba’s only architecture school is turning its back on contemporary architectural discourse or reality. Winnipeg should remain a place that lives up to its purpose: where ideas and not just rivers and railways meet. Vast acres of downtown surface parking lots are crying out for innovative architects and eager investors to keep ideas–both new and old–out of the irrelevancy of cold storage and to apply them in a meaningful way.