Rethinking Winnipeg: What These Fearless Architects Can Train The Remainder of Canada

The table for 1200 on the Esplanade Riel (Jacqueline Young)

It was Saturday evening and 1,200 people were dressed in white and were seated for dinner on the Esplanade Riel above the Red River, where 150 tables presented dishes from the city’s top chefs. The organizers of the event, a group of architects who call themselves 5468796, were also there – everyone entertained a table and drank the atmosphere of a city that has come to life in recent years. Johanna Hurme, partner in 5468796, wore large purple sunglasses and mingled with architects from the city. “That was really a success,” she says. “It felt like the real spirit of Winnipeg was emerging.”

Many Canadians, even some Winnipeggians, will be surprised by this cultivated confidence. But 5468796 is leading a new generation of local architects to invent a new city, and perhaps a new Canada, that gives innovative architecture a place at the table. Manitoba’s capital is experiencing an architectural rebirth after decades of stagnation, and 5468796 is at the center. The company is only seven years old and the three partners are relatively young: Hurme, who was born in Finland, is 38 years old; Bosnian-born Sasa Radulovic, 41; and Colin Neufeld, 38.

Nevertheless, they managed to realize a remarkable number of projects. Including a condominium building with units that fit together like a 3-D puzzle.

There was also a renovation that included a historic facade on Portage Avenue with slender steel balconies and a band with walls made of 20,000 aluminum chain shirts. They have won Canadian and international architecture awards, constant attention from design blogs, and a partnership with a New York think tank.

All while smashing prejudices about what’s possible for their city and their job. “I think we’re a bit naive,” says Radulovic, “and we’re working on not letting go of that. If the answer is ‘no’ we ask, ‘why not?’ “

The Avenue on Portage (James Brittain)

If you are a young English-Canadian architect with ambitions to design innovative buildings, the road to success can be long and arduous. After you’ve worked in the right offices and completed a tedious licensing process, you’re ready to teach and take on any job you can get to renovate kitchens and homes. By then, you are likely to be 40 years old. Next, look for meaningful work that allows you to control the details and materials to make your vision a reality. This usually means homes for wealthy and dedicated customers, and then public buildings – if you can beat your more seasoned peers for the job. Then you retire.

For this reason, too many Canadian architects are stuck in a polished concrete prison, building beautiful buildings for the very few. The three partners of 5468796 demolished this model.

They met as students at the prestigious University of Manitoba architecture school. Radulovic was a Sarajevo native who ended up as a refugee in Canada in his twenties; Hurme had come from Helsinki to a small town in Manitoba as an exchange student. The two formed an intellectual partnership, both outsiders from birth and equally outspoken. This status, says Hurme, “helps to question the context and not to take things for granted.”

After a few years of cooperation with the local office of Cohlmeyer Architecture, Hurme and Radulovic went into business for themselves in 2007 and were soon hectically busy; her friend Neufeld joined shortly afterwards. The trio chose their founding number for a collective name. It turned out that the timing was good too: over the past decade, construction activity in central Winnipeg has increased and a number of new construction projects are visible from afar, from Esplanade Riel by Étienne Gaboury to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

In this environment 5468796 were characterized by their creative ambition and their entrepreneurial hectic pace. For the first seven years of her job, this meant grappling with the tight budgets of community service and the no-frills prospects of for-profit developers.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority offices. (James Brittan)

At best, their work makes the most of simple, formal gestures. A few weeks ago, Radulovic drove me through downtown Winnipeg in his black BMW Z4 to see some of their buildings. As we left her office in the Exchange District – Radulovic lives in a loft around the corner, in the same warehouse as Hurme and her husband – we arrived at their office complex for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Here, the design of 5468796 led the staircase of the building to the outside and transformed it into diagonally curved lines; the building appears as two wedge-shaped masses, the lower one of which is wrapped in a glass curtain wall; the upper one in a tight, black metal panel. It achieves a strong aesthetic impact at a very low cost.

This quality has brought the company a certain world fame: They make icons. Contrary to the main tradition of Canadian architects, their works do not fetishize finely resolved details, but rely on large gestures and expressive forms. Her next condominium building, named 62M, will be a 40-meter-long flying saucer that lands on pickup sticks next to the Disraeli Freeway. It is, says developer Mark Penner, “crazy”.

But craziness is a win: “To get attention for a new downtown project, it has to be special,” says Penner. This is mainly due to the example that set 5468796. “You go as far as you can with every single project,” he says.

And generally they have their projects built. They handle the business side of development, cultivate investors and developers, and they have embraced affordable stucco, cast concrete, and timber frame construction in Winnipeg. (Property prices in the city are modest, and thanks to the extreme climate and soupy soil, it’s expensive to build.)

The creative minds of 5468796. (Lorne Bridgman)

Their ambitions usually go well beyond surface treatment, and the results can be messy. I saw this while standing with Radulovic in a muddy field at the west end that was meant to be the courtyard for a series of low-rise condos called BGBX. “Here you can see the possibility,” said Radulovic, pointing to the inner walls of the buildings, which were wrapped in reddish weathered steel and cement panels painted in a pixelated pattern of yellow and green. The outside of the complex is clad in corrugated iron to mirror the industrial shed across the street. The project deserves the international award it won in 2010 – or will when the last two of its six buildings are up and new green spaces in the courtyard soak up filtered rainwater.

In the meantime, things are progressing slowly. “The developer is in no hurry to get his money out,” said Radulovic with a shrug. “We’re sure it will be done right – it will only take some time.”

When it gets there, the project will depend on a common public space. This is one of the trademarks of the company’s previous buildings: Several of their residential buildings form settlement villages around courtyards. They’ll bring that to their first Toronto project too. A flat residential area called Tree House in the east of the city, it really promises to be very interesting.

Another new project on Stradbrook Avenue in Winnipeg is a walk-in apartment building that is simply built and then encased in a skin of reflective sheets of glass that overlap on exposed clips. The reflections of the leafy street trees shimmer on the facade. This building is incredibly pretty.

Block 10. (James Brittain)

A couple who had just moved in invited Radulovic and me to visit their apartment. With its inexpensive kitchen cabinets, upholstered leather armchairs, and ruffled ceilings, the room reflected the gap between high architectural taste on the one hand and the landlords’ budgets and aesthetic choices made by the rest of us on the other. But Radulovic was philosophical. “We try to make our work accessible to as large an audience as possible,” he said. “We’re not interested in talking to just a few.”

The attitude is urgently needed. And I think the work will adjust to the bravery: some of 5468796’s previous projects, including the two that gave them Governor General Medals in Architecture, are really outstanding. But the rest is at least good; and, more importantly, they are ambitious. Her quality of interrogation and exploration – it displaces real architecture from every job – is a strong example.

This also applies to the sense of civic responsibility that prompted 5468796, together with the local group StorefrontMB, to found Table for 1200. It was a spin-off of a global tour by the company taking Tables for 12 with architects in cities from Sydney to Rotterdam, learning how those places created a strong architectural culture. The tour was inspired by the public spirit that animated its buildings, along with some civic pride and nationalism. “We don’t have a centuries-old tradition in Canadian architecture,” Hurme later told me. “We don’t have a strong design culture. But we have great architects. And we have to prove in this country that great things can happen from Canada. “

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