Warm up to Winter

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS Brian Gould

Score another point for the architects.

In Winnipeg this winter, five architect-designed warming huts (plus one rogue hut) have been dispersed along the Assiniboine Credit Union River Trail. Intended to provide skaters with a place to lace up their skates, warm up from the cold, or just engage in friendly discussions with fellow outdoor enthusiasts, these expressive huts have become an instant success by adding a sense of place to a six-kilometre section of frozen ice that begins at the Hugo Street Dock on the Assiniboine River and extends out to the Churchill Dock on the Red River, passing the historic downtown site of The Forks along the way.

Peter Hargraves of Sputnik Architecture initiated the idea of the warming huts as a means of bringing a greater awareness of art and architecture to the River Trail. The plan involved inviting five teams–each consisting of an architect paired with an artist or landscape architect–to design and construct a warming hut within a $9,000 budget. And thus, The Warming Hut: An Art + Architecture Exposition on Ice was born. All the huts were completed at the beginning of February, with the exception of architect David Penner’s rogue hut entitled Corigami. Penner and his co-conspirators designed a self-financed accordion-like three-sided shelter made of corrugated plastic, which they slid out onto the ice under the cover of darkness a few days after the other designs were open to the public.

Hargraves’s initiative was made logistically and financially possible through the support of Manitoba Homecoming 2010, the Winnipeg Foundation, the Manitoba Association of Architects, and The Forks. Due to the success of the warming huts (plus the rogue shelter), organizers expect there to be a design competition for next year’s entries.

In a broader sense, the presence of these warming huts has made apparent the need for significant improvements to Winnipeg’s vast network of riverfronts. For example, skating along the River Trail reveals how the architecture at the base of the high-rise residential towers along Wellington Crescent has failed to maximize the aesthetic potential of the river’s edge. And, it is unfortunate that the industrial buildings and empty lots in Mostyn Park–adjacent to a magnificent riparian landscape–sprawl endlessly as if they were situated near the airport, not a few hundred metres from the Manitoba Legislative Building. Other lost opportunities can be seen elsewhere, such as the grounds of the St. Boniface General Hospital. Perhaps the most famous flood plain in Western Canada, this wondrous merging of city and river could surely benefit from improved riverfront planning and design.

Nevertheless, the warming huts are a positive step towards realizing the full potential of Winnipeg’s riverfront opportunities, and the architects involved deserve credit for finding new ways to appreciate this magnificent prairie city. CA