Winnipeg Warmth: Warming Huts, Winnipeg, Manitoba
In 2009, Peter Hargraves, MRAIC, founder of Sputnik Architecture, stood in a frigid north wind on an old railway bridge with the principals of 1×1 Architecture, 5468796 Architecture, and Architecture 701. Below them, a narrow path wound atop the snow-covered river: the Forks’ Red River Mutual Trail.
This strip of ice for skaters—with an adjacent path for walking, skiing, and fat-tire cycling—was an early initiative of The Forks, Winnipeg’s lauded regeneration of a former railyards site. Visitors flocked to the trail. The year before, the 8.5-kilometre-long track had been recognized by Guinness World Records as the globe’s longest naturally frozen skating trail. Here and there alongside it, small huts were set up where skaters could shelter from the cold.
Hargraves’ idea, which had been simmering for a year, was that the trail should be adorned not with run-of-the-mill shacks, but with models of what creativity and built form can do for public space. All that was necessary was to rebuild them the next year—and why not every year?—with the involvement of artists and architects. There was no shortage of impassioned creative types in Winnipeg willing to gift their talents to this kind of project.
The idea took. A few days later, on the initiative of Sasa Radulovic, MRAIC, the group took their ideas to Paul Jordan, then COO and today CEO of The Forks North Portage Partnership. Hargraves was bowled over when, rather than simply granting permission to build the new huts, the Forks offered $10,000 in seed funding. The Canada Council followed suit, as did the Manitoba Association of Architects, the Winnipeg Foundation, and Manitoba Homecoming. Alexander Reford, of Quebec’s Jardins de Métis, helped the team develop a competition brief and structure.
Thus were born the Warming Huts: an annual event in which local and international artists and architects install shelters along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, each one a jewel of invention, humour or drama. In their first year, 2010, the Huts were designed by Antoine Predock (at the time working on the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, also at The Forks), Richard Kroecker of Dalhousie University, and the four architects who were at that first meeting, all working in collaboration with designers or artists from other disciplines. Huts are retained from past years, and today, the project sponsors three kinds of new installation each year: the top three entries of an international design competition, a Hut by an invited creator, and two Huts by local educational institutions, such as the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture.
The Huts contribute to a mid-winter atmosphere of cultural ferment in Winnipeg, alongside the RMTC Master Playwright Festival, the WSO New Music Festival and the Festival Du Voyageur. Another such event is RAW:Almond, a pop-up restaurant on the Assiniboine River run by Joe Kalturnyk and Mandel Hitzer. RAW:Almond has its own newly designed structure each year, contributing to the dialogue initiated by the Huts, and invites chefs from elsewhere to work alongside local chefs in an atmosphere of invention and play.
The Warming Huts have garnered attention in other ways. In 2014, the New York Times featured a striking Hut by Pike Projects, Plain Projects, and URBANINK. Winning entries have come from climes as far-flung as Russia and Israel. RAW Design, a Warming Huts winner in 2014, has exported the concept to Toronto, which is now mounting installations from its third annual Winter Stations competition.
In 2017, the competition winners range from the humorous (Bubble Beach by Team 888 from Chicago) to the haunting (Ice Lantern by Lisa Tondino, Alexandra Bolen, Mathew Rodrigues and Drew Klassen).
One entry—Open Border, by Dutch designers Atelier ARI—goes beyond playfulness and phenomenological effect. Joyce de Grauw and Paul van den Berg’s seven-foot-high red barrier spans the Assiniboine River, and is clad in transparent red insulating strips. As skaters and walkers pass through, they will enter briefly into a “red world” : a space literally as well as visually warmer than its snowy surroundings. While a delightful place, this permeable wall seems to also offer another message. As the artists (both trained in architecture) put it: “Walls are built to keep people in or out. This wall not only gives the opportunity to go through it over the full length, but is also a place to come together.” With the Syrian refugee crisis and the Brexit vote, Europeans have begun to question their famously open borders. While de Grauw and van den Berg come down clearly on the side of inclusiveness, the ambiguity of their Hut underlines the complexity of the situation: it is a shared space, but still a barrier. The piece translates well to the North American context of walls, physical and procedural, raised up against migrants and refugees. It speaks just as much to other institutional and social barriers: between neighbourhoods, income levels and ethnicities.
Anish Kapoor’s Warming Hut, Stackhouse, is just as intriguing. Kapoor’s participation is a coup for Hargraves and for Winnipeg. One of the world’s pre-eminent artists, he creates structures and spaces—Chicago’s Cloud Gate, London’s Orbit—that elude definition as either masculine or feminine, hard or soft; his surfaces, whether dark and smoky, vivid or mirror-like, resist penetration by the eye. Whether angelic or disturbing, his works seem to be simultaneously about generation and decay. In Stackhouse, he explores these themes in a material he has never used before: ice. A slit-like aperture penetrates a cube of stacked ice blocks, leading to a spherical space within. Like Open Border, this is both an object, and a place to dwell. But in contrast, it is deeply internalized, a condition complicated by the simultaneously translucent and opaque qualities of ice. The space inside will alter with the changing light, shifts in the weather, and drifting snow. It will be dark with murmurs of light; pure and impure. Its most significant change will play out over the longer term, as the hollow cube moves from its birth in winter to its demise in the spring. Which will survive longer: Stackhouse, or the frozen river holding it up? Kapoor’s interest in sullied spaces, and objects that refuse to be simply objective, will be played out in that transformation.
While Kapoor was likely interested in the difficulties of working in this environment—Hargraves warned him in an early communication, “ It’s dangerously cold here”—it is noteworthy that Stackhouse turns on the one phenomenon that threatens all of the Huts: a gradually warming environment. While every year the Warming Hut team hopes for cold weather, recent warm winters have made the Red River Mutual Trail shorter, and the season for the Huts briefer, with construction more rushed. In this context, the art and architecture of the huts becomes inevitably political. Harvesting ice from the rivers and sculpting them into works of art connects artists and citizens to the changing cycles of nature, to the threatened life flowing through the rivers at the heart of the city.
Related to this view, Hargraves would also like to see the Huts engage Aboriginal heritage, as several public spaces in The Forks already do. The native presence represents a memory of river use dating back millennia, combining awareness of place, identity as a community, and ephemeral construction. One step in this direction was the invitation of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq as last year’s guest artist. Collaborating with Sputnik, she created In the Light of the Kudluk, which packed snow into corten steel formworks to create a series of animistic figures. The figures melted away in the spring—a kind of shapeshifting. Like Kapoor’s piece, In the Light of the Kudluk’s realization depended on its own demise.
When Hargraves first established Sputnik Architecture, he took the firm’s name from a memory. As a young boy in South Africa, one evening he looked up at the night sky to see a small light crossing the heavens, moving quickly and freely compared to the fixed stars around it. Years later, a satellite seemed an auspicious namesake for a small and agile firm focused on imaginative projects. And so it was. The image of a point of light passing through the dark sky resonates beautifully with the Warming Huts: small circles of warmth in a snowy landscape, ephemeral, yet somehow burning all the brighter for that.