Interview: Johanna Hurme
INTERVIEWED BY Sarah Fletcher
There’s an angular beauty to 5468796 Architecture’s latest residential project on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Jutting out on a diagonal across the driveway, the rich brown single-level home jumps out from the ticky-tacky homes on an unassuming suburban street. I enter to behold dreamy rays of sunshine stretching across the floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear. A lone cat skulks about the backyard, looking vaguely guilty in the bright light of day, as a harried photographer sets up his tripod for an upcoming magazine feature.
I’m here to meet with Johanna Hurme, founding partner and recently crowned Manitoba Woman of the Year. The award is one of many accolades the co-founder of the 12-person firm has received; 5468796 also recently garnered the sixth annual Rice Design Alliance Spotlight Prize. Their projects include the iconic OMS stage at the centre of Winnipeg’s Exchange District and a series of highly publicized multi-family residential projects.
Hurme and Sasa Radulovic, immigrants to Canada from Finland and Yugoslavia respectively, co-founded the firm in 2007. Radulovic joins briefly to say hello as I chat with Hurme about the firm’s approach to design and the architecture scene in Winnipeg.
What is it like to work in Winnipeg?
First of all, Winnipeg is really painted by its isolation. Our closest major city is Minneapolis and I think that breeds a certain kind of innovation overall. We’ve always had a very strong visual arts culture in the city.
But it’s also a cheap city; people never wanted to really spend money on design. So architecture dropped off from being considered part of the culture. That’s what we’re trying to reintroduce on the scene as something that creates exponential value and a return on investment.
So you’re very much invested in the urban space here.
I think there’s a lot of potential! There are some new firms—Peter Sampson Architecture Studio (PSA) started maybe a year or two after us, and Peter Hargraves runs an office called Sputnik.
Winnipeg has been really good to us. I think it has to do with the fact that we were already displaced once, so we weren’t rushing to get out of here. Most of our peers at the time left—it didn’t seem there was a lot of opportunity for exploration. But in this day and age, you can do great things from anywhere, even Flin Flon in Manitoba, and still have access to the world stage.
It’s quirky and it’s interesting here. That’s what we like about it. Not all things are great, of course, but it really has potential. Second cities are places that often don’t have major resources or cultural institutions. But because of the small-town quality, you can get more done—just because there’s more room.
Who is your favourite architect?
We keep saying that our favourite architect is “Rem Zumthor.” There is the logic and the kind of thinking that goes into OMA’s work. And there’s Peter Zumthor. Because of the beauty and gravitas of his work, it seems weighty and permanent. It plays with the very basic elements of light and shadow, mass and void.
Tell me about the 1,200 Chairs project you’ve unveiled this fall.
We’re looking for 1,200 crowd-sourced ideas for Winnipeg’s urban design. It’s $25 to register an idea, and each idea gets put on a chair in a public space. If we get 1,200 ideas, then we’ll have a pot of $30,000 in registration fees to use towards implementing the winning entry.
It’s open to all Winnipeggers. The mayor is now involved, so the city is embracing the idea. We also then tied it to physical places, through the chairs. All of a sudden, we’re going to have a thousand new places for people to sit around the city, to take a look and actually think about public space.
For a three-week period, from August 27th to September 19th, these chairs appear around the city. We have businesses as “chair-takers”—they would make sure the chairs don’t get lost or stolen. Then we’ll have the jury and a big block party where the 1,200 chairs come together and the winner is announced.
Would you say there is an overarching approach or style to your work?
Yes, but it’s not a style—I would say it’s more like an underlying logic. We always start with limitations and parameters. One project that we have under construction now has been dubbed a flying saucer: it’s this disc that’s 35 feet up in the air. It’s housing, with pie-shaped units in it.
That form happened because the developer asked, can you somehow make housing work on this site—would anyone ever live here? There’s a freeway on one side and an industrial shed with blank walls on the other side. There’s no real access to a street even. So it’s out of pure necessity then that we ended up lifting it up and then it ends up becoming round. This is how our process always evolves— it’s not about deciding on an aesthetic.
There are only three cladding types that we can afford in the current marketplace in Winnipeg. It tends to be that our options are stucco, Hardie board or some sort of corrugated metal. So those unintentionally become part of our style.
In the end, we hope that people can look at the work and appreciate the kind of thinking that went into it—the way it was shaped by parameters we had for budget, or site constraints, or client desires, and so on. It’s really about trying to do more with less.
Sarah Fletcher is a Montreal-based writer. You can learn more about the Chair Your Idea project, including the winning ideas, here.