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Modernist Cube hard to solve

City struggles to make outdoor stage work

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There are no problems whatsoever with the Cube -- aside from the floor, ceiling, lights, door, curtains, rivets, pulleys, cables and winches on the aluminum-and-concrete structure at Old Market Square.

A trio of city councillors spent Monday morning listening to a laundry list of complaints about the functionality of the $1.2-million outdoor stage, a city-owned structure that opened in 2010 to a mix of praise and condemnation.

The Cube's hyper-modernist design has won awards for Winnipeg firm 5468796 Architecture but also intense criticism, thanks to a series of mechanical problems that culminated with the shuttering of the stage last August due to safety concerns associated with the opening and closing of its metal curtains.

On Monday, council's downtown, heritage and riverbank committee was also told of floor lights failing due to faulty cooling fans, backstage lights that don't appear to have any power supply, a supporting mast that tumbled during the first summer, a lack of headroom for performers and the inaccessibility of the little-known second level of the stage.

"Do we have a lemon here?" asked North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty.

The chief complaint about the Cube, however, continues to involve its unique aluminum "chain-mail" curtains, which have proven difficult to lift without damaging the structure itself as well as the pins, pulleys, winches and rivets that are supposed to fasten and hoist the heavy metal skin.

During the stage's first three years of operation, the technicians responsible for raising the curtains were unable to figure out a safe and consistent way to do so, said Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone, which organizes Old Market Square programs.

"The curtain never really opens the same way twice," Timmerman said. "The best way I can describe it is you raise the curtains through feel and intuition."

Timmerman said the Cube still has a chance to serve as an iconic piece of Winnipeg architecture, provided it begins to actually function as a stage.

To that end, the city enlisted an outside firm to study the stage and plans to begin testing its curtain as early as today. The plan is to have a safe and functional means of opening the structure before the summer festival season begins in June, said John Kiernan, the city's urban-design manager.

Workers have also cut into the rear side of the metal skin to add a door to the stage. Railings will be added to ensure access to the second level is up to code. New lights have been ordered to finally fulfil the stage's initial promise of illuminating Old Market Square at night throughout the year.

The city has held back payment to the Cube's construction manager, supplier and designer, Kiernan said. He did not divulge the cost of the repairs and modifications.

"This has been a unique experience," he said of the three-year struggle. Though his department signed off on the basic structure of the stage before it was built, the design of the curtains was not tested ahead of time.

"At the end of the day, it's our Cube and our park. We're responsible for making it work," he said.

Sasa Radulovic, principal with 5468796 Architecture, said many of the issues raised Monday have been addressed. He said the city did not take time to complete the structure before it opened, but otherwise deferred comment to the city. "It's their stage," he said.

City property director Barry Thorgrimson said the city will consider legal action if it is forced to spend unbudgeted funds as part of its effort to ensure the stage is operational, safe and up to code.

For now, the repairs and modifications fall within the property department's budget, he said.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 B1

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