Winnipeg Jets

Project Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Architect Stantec Architecture, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects
Text Herb Enns
Photos Gerry Kopelow

I was lucky enough recently to spend an evening at the Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM), enthralled as always by the exotic collection of airborne beasts of burden and stories of the legendary aviators who laid the foundations of commercial flight in Winnipeg. Well known for its extraordinary bush plane heritage, Winnipeg was an early waypoint for a number of experimental and workhorse aircraft that ushered in the era of commercial flight–onto the prairies, into the bush, and across Canada. Among the many planes and artifacts in the WCAM, the Froebe brothers’ helicopter is one of the more exquisite relics. Built on a farm near Homewood, Manitoba in 1930, it flew before the famed Igor Sikorsky’s helicopter, and is a remarkable story of local ingenuity and invention. A Bristol Freighter CF-WAE with gaping clamshell doors was purchased by Wardair in the 1960s to haul freight up to the DEW Line Radar Stations. It guards the entrance to the museum. In the middle of the pack, a Junkers JU-53 CF-ARM (the Flying Boxcar) rests with its most beautiful skin of corrugated aluminum–and emblazoned on its side is the bold Canadian Airways Limited insignia. This plane and its name are important, as they represent the role of Winnipeg in the history of commercial aviation in Canada.

Winnipeg’s new airport opened on October 30th of this year. A symbol of local ambition, capability and identity, it will fittingly carry the name of James Armstrong Richardson, in small measure righting a wrong enacted in 1937 by the federal government. In that year, Bill 74–An Act to Establish Trans-Canada Air Lines–essentially stopped James A. Richardson’s fledgeling and visionary Canadian Airways in its tracks by conscripting transcontinental airline routes for a publicy owned airline–the precursor to Air Canada. Shirley Render’s intensely researched book published in 1999, Double Cross, details the complex network of political intrigue, cross-purposes, and manoeuvring that unravelled Richardson’s dream. A bronze statue of Richardson will now grace the departures hall of the new airport in honour of his role as a pioneer of commercial aviation in Canada. 

The romance and adventure of flight is a fading vision. Yes, the future is almost always brighter as one glides ever more effortlessly though the airports of the world. But today’s obsessions are seamless check-in routines, loss-free baggage handling, and on-time departures. These have replaced the pioneer aviator’s indifference to comfort as they crisscrossed the vast Canadian hinterland strapped into crudely hewn bundles of engines and ailerons.

To design a building with intimations of flight is challenging in consideration of the enormous logistical, security, and building-quality standards administered by complex consultant relations, and is also hampered by extended construction times. Add to these the current thrust towards LEED certification, and the odds of achieving an elegant solution diminish. Renzo Piano and Peter Rice did it at Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, and Norman Foster has accomplished an uncanny sense of lightness in the vast departures and arrivals lounges at the Beijing Airport. But in most cases an airport is utilitarian, and service-based. For the new airport in Winnipeg, the project is anything but. 

New Haven, Connecticut-based architect César Pelli designed the new terminal. He and his team captured the essence of the place, and rendered the ambitions of the clients in space and line–as a gently stretched aluminum-clad wing that cantilevers well beyond each end of the curved façade. Not all airports rely on metaphors of flight for their form. We are still in the jet age, and progress expressed in aluminum and steel may look like it wants to take off, but it’s all an illusion. “Despite what they say, we’re not like birds or even airplanes,” croons singer-songwriter Jim Bryson in his collaboration with Winnipeg band The Weakerthans. Nevertheless, Pelli’s design is inspired less by the technologies of flight and more by the perception of place. The result is a new glass house for Winnipeg that is differentiated by spatial richness and transparency and light–a vivid interface with the environment. 

First impressions are lasting. A great deal of attention has been paid to the concept of an intuitive check-in experience and efficient self-service kiosks to hasten the boarding process. From the departures concourse, views are offered through to the airliners tethered to glass bridges. An arrival sequence that allows the public into the baggage-claim area as their friends and relatives descend on a broad staircase preserves the rituals of greeting so familiar to us in the old terminal–an endearing departure from the usual checks and balances normally deployed in similar conditions. This is a huge design breakthrough in airport interface transparency.

The presence of commercial enterprise is suppressed–none of the crowded and chaotic Heathrow Airport duty-free boutiques to be seen. A collection of discrete food service kiosks–with many operated by local restaurateurs–stand in waiting, peripheral to the main spatial attractions, and are largely embedded in the building’s core mass. The entire operation focuses on reducing travel anxiety while the luxurious space gradually diminishes as passengers move into the lounges and transit the glass bridges.

Enormous flexible glass walls give the international departures lounge (generally for American destinations) room for expansion as needs arise. The designers were not able to achieve a single security wall, and late changes allowed for a separate, distinct and autonomous international departures stream–a small slice of the US in Canada. 

The Richardson Airport art program emphasizes glass, with commissions by Ione Thorkelson (Incoming), Warren Carther (Aperture), Joel Berman (Inside Ice), and Jacqueline Metz and Nancy Chew (Where the Sky Began/A Map of the Land). Thorkelson has been blowing and casting glass in her stack-wall studio on Winnipeg’s Pembina escarpment for decades. Her interpretations of natural forms and animal parts in cast glass are exquisite. For Incoming, she has cast the wings of birds. These are elegantly assembled with a delicate tracery of supporting rods, braces and wires. A stunning array (flock) of the glass mobiles rises up to the undulating ceiling, meeting currents of wooden air. 

Circular perforations–a constellation of skylights–above the double-height baggage-claim area funnel daylight into the core of the building. Ringed with blue LED lights, they are visible from the entrance hall. The north-facing window wall of the departure lounges connects travellers with a truly vast and magnificent prairie vista. Scenes like blue-black winter evening skies and grey thunderclouds tracking in from the north and west will be a constant chromatic presence. 

The airport’s planting regimen is largely designed to flourish without watering once the planting has been established. Energy-conservation strategies include a high-performance building envelope, radiant heating and cooling strategies, a common-condenser water loop (energy bus), exhaust-air heat recovery, heat-recovery chillers, variable-frequency drives on pumps and fans, and daylight harvesting. The perimeter of the concrete floor plate functions as a solar heat sink, and perimeter radiant-floor heating is engaged only when the sun does not heat the floor. A flue-gas recovery system is among the components that will generate a level of 95% efficiency in the heating plant. Low-VOC products and finishes are matched with high levels of fresh air pre-filtering and high-efficiency electrost
atic media filtration. An education program is planned to inform passengers of the environmental life of the building.

An important element to consider is the fact that the new airport is a local enterprise. The Winnipeg Airport Authority was established in 1997 as a community-based non-share capital corporation. There is a lot at stake for Winnipeg–a small city in the midst of a significant economic boom where image-building initiatives are springing up everywhere. 

A transportation hub at its core, it has been decades since Winnipeg has witnessed such a massive retooling of transportation infrastructure. Located near the airport, the new IKEA alone has required the public purse to finance a significant portion of the $24 million in turning lanes and traffic signals necessary to service the new home-furnishings store, while both the federal and provincial governments are investing heavily in a complex transport infrastructure hub initiative called Centreport Canada. This sprawling expanse of 81 square kilometres (20,000 acres) directly north of the airport is intended to be a distribution, warehousing, and manufacturing hub linked to Richardson International Airport’s 24/7 cargo program. Centreport promises to be a logistics and transfer mega-mall with road, rail, and air threads and arteries extending across the continent and north to Nunavut and the High Arctic. With 15 active cargo airlines and 13 charter air companies, the Richardson International Airport is, and will continue to be, as Gertrude Stein said about America, “…filled with moving.” Trains, planes and automobiles–all are implicated in a rolling-out of the look, feel and function of the advanced 21st-century transport city.

From a standing start of 3.4 million passengers a year, the managers of the new terminal expect traffic to grow to 5 million a year in the near future. A constant flow of passengers–immigrants from the Philippines with their “balikbayan” boxes, NHL players carrying carbon-fibre hockey sticks, and visitors of conscience to the soon to be opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights among them–will grace the expansive pedestrian causeways and lounges in its first few years of operation. The most costly architectural investment in the province’s history points to the prominence of connectivity and communication in this age of globalization and matching community-driven aspirations for a progressive image. The new terminal has finally landed–surprisingly–in the boomtown milieu of a city that is seemingly out of step with the turbulence of global economic trade winds. The managers of the Winnipeg Airport Authority took an educated gamble in 2004. What an enormous act of pioneer faith in launching and completing such a massive undertaking–with such elegant and sophisticated results. CA

Herb Enns is the Director of the Experimental Media Research Group and a Professor of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

Client The Winnipeg Airport Authority
Architect Team Stantec Architecture: Stanis Smith, David Essex, John Petersmeyer, Alfred Moreno, Kerr Lammie, Michel Samaha, Garry Steinhilber, Ken Wauhkonen, Marcus Rarog, Perry Piwniuk, Erandi Thammita Ralalage, Lisa Ham, Ralf Lagman, Wanda Slawik, Mathews Itty, Leif Aarestad, Mohan Tenuwara, Myron Pasaluko. Pelli Clarke Pelli: Fred Clarke, Mark Shoemaker, Greg Biancardi, Florence Chan, Luciana Mello.
Structural Crosier Kilgour and Partners Ltd., Halcrow Yolles
Mechanical SMS Engineering, Stantec, Smith and Andersen, The Mitchell Partnership
Electrical SMS Engineering, Mulvey and Banani International
Lighting Auerbach Glasow French
Code LMDG Building Code Consultants Ltd.
Elevator Gulay Elevator Services
Universal Design Design for All Inc.
Wind and Snow RWDI
Acoustics Daniel Lyzun & Associates Ltd.
Cost Control Hanscomb Consultants Inc.
Baggage Handling Marshall Macklin Monaghan
Signage Apple Designs
Airside Marshall Macklin Monaghan
Groundside Earthtech, SNC-Lavalin
Landscape Scatliff Miller Murray
General Contractor EllisDon
Program Management The Airport Site Redevelopment Team (Parsons and Wardrop)
Area 549,000 ft2 
Program Budget $585 M
Completion October 2011