Winnipeg had a great year in 2011. The lengthy string of positive urban development headlines was recently interrupted, however, by the announcement that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is facing a significant funding shortfall. This has provided fuel to the critics of what will forever be a controversial building, but for many in the construction industry it is not a surprising development.
Construction cost inflation is a challenge most projects in Manitoba have confronted in recent years. The double-edged sword of high growth is as construction activity increases and contractors become busier, competitive bidding and cost stability decrease. Over the past years, Manitobas construction cost escalation has been as much as three times the inflation rate.
Compounding this volatility are global increases in building material costs due to construction volume in emerging countries. Since the CMHR began fundraising in 2003, the price of steel has quadrupled, with 45 per cent of global consumption occurring in China, which also consumes 50 per cent of the worlds cement.
With escalation of up to half a percentage per month, large-budget projects with extended timelines can be significantly affected by fluctuating costs. The new airport terminal, football stadium and Manitoba Hydros office tower all met with similar economic challenges.
The budget shortfall of the CMHR is unfortunate but not uncommon for a complex building of this type. The last two national museums constructed in Ottawa faced similar issues. The war museum was 30 per cent over-budget, and the Museum of Civilization, Canadas most-visited cultural attraction, was more than 300 per cent over original estimates.
To avoid these cost overruns, the Alberta provincial government recently took the unprecedented step of implementing a design-build process for the new Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. As with the CMHR, an international competition was held, but instead of being architect-led, proponents were development teams required to include a guaranteed final cost with their submission.
The results show even with a budget similar to that of the CMHR ($340 million), eliminating the risk of cost overruns can come at a price for this type of project. Although many of the most talented architects in North America were part of the development teams, the four finalists and the eventual winners were widely criticized for uninspired design. With cost increases to be absorbed by the contractor and pricing based only on schematic design drawings, risk was minimized by incorporating pragmatic forms and predictable construction techniques. This process reduces taxpayer exposure to cost overruns, but many Albertans, including Premier Alison Redford, have publicly expressed concern over its results.
Antoine Predocks abstract watercolour images were chosen as the design of the CMHR for their inspired vision, not for their ease of construction. It was understood that bringing them to reality would be a challenge. The reward for taking that risk would be a building that is unique in the world, with the potential to transform Winnipegs uninspired image abroad and cultivate a new confidence within.
Critics of the CMHR routinely assert tourists will not come to Winnipeg to visit such an emotionally challenging museum. This negative preconception, along with its geographic isolation, makes it imperative the architecture be nothing less than an inspiring and iconic form that challenges people to explore it further. Some will love and some will hate it, but its dramatic expression ensures it will get noticed and, like the museum itself, elicit a reaction.
The soaring volumes, the play of light and shadow and the overwhelming scale of the buildings architecture will stimulate a visceral reaction from those who visit, setting a dramatic context for the museums provocative content. Rising into the endless Prairie sky in the Tower of Hope will be an uplifting experience and a powerful crescendo to an emotional journey. The architecture is not simply a place to house the experience, it is the experience. A building any less stimulating would have only invited failure.
Opponents of the CMHR often lament the governments financial involvement, but there is already strong evidence that the museums role as a catalyst for development will make it a good public investment in the long term. A citys economy is fuelled by optimism and the CMHR is a large part of Winnipegs new confidence. Hotel, restaurant and residential developments at The Forks, in St. Boniface and throughout downtown are beginning to gain considerable momentum in anticipation of the CMHR. As these projects move from the planning stages into construction over the next few years, the economic and urban benefits of the museum will become publicly evident.
The CMHR reinforces Winnipegs reputation as a creative city of art and culture and its daring form contributes to a growing public appreciation for the unique architectural design that is transforming Winnipegs modern urban image.
The Sydney Opera House was 15 years late and 1,400 per cent over-budget, yet few would label it a boondoggle or white elephant. It stands as an example of what can be achieved when risks are taken. The CMHR holds the same transformative potential for Winnipeg.
Esplanade Riel is today the postcard image of our city. Time has allowed its critics to forget their opposition to its "extravagant government waste" and "million-dollar toilet." If the current economic challenges can be overcome, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be given the same opportunity to prove its value as a civic icon and economic catalyst long into the future.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at email@example.com;