A Google search of the term 'Winnipeg architecture' yields a colourful grid of thumbnail images that graphically illustrates the city's unique physical character. Instantly distinguishable from similar searches of Edmonton, Calgary or Vancouver, the results portray the familiar kaleidoscope of arched windows, Tyndall-stone columns and reflective glass walls that have come to define Winnipeg's modern built form.
Winnipeg's distinct architectural character is largely the result of unique growth patterns in the last century that saw rapid expansion during the two decades before the First World War and after the Second World War, each followed by long periods of economic stagnation. The city's current urban form has been largely defined by the architectural legacy left by these two distinct boom periods.
At the turn of the last century, Winnipeg became a breeding ground for new architectural ideas and technologies, rivalling work being done in larger centres across North America. The city became such an architectural hotbed it attracted some of the continent's most influential architects. McKim Mead and White, Darling and Pearson and Warren & Wetmore were three internationally renowned firms working in Winnipeg who were also designing some of the most significant buildings in Toronto, New York and Chicago at the time.
Beginning in the 1950s, Winnipeg would again become a centre for innovative design. Many local architects returned from schools like MIT, IIT and Harvard to practise in the Modernist style that was sweeping the world. The University of Manitoba, led by MIT graduate John Russell would become a leading academic institution, promoting this new movement in architecture. Many of Winnipeg's Modernist buildings would win national and international acclaim as the city became recognized for its provocative contemporary design.
Today, after the customary few decades of slow growth, it would seem Winnipeg has again entered an era of prosperity that will leave a similar architectural legacy on its urban form.
As in the past, outside architects have come to leave their mark on the city, with Argentinean Caesar Pelli designing the airport, American Antoine Predock the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Toronto's KPMB the Manitoba Hydro Building and Vancouver's Patkau Architects the Millennium Library and Artlab Building at the U of M.
Winnipeg designers themselves are also beginning to have an impact on the national architecture scene. In 2010, two of six Canadian Architect Awards and six of nine Prairie Design Awards were presented to Winnipeg projects. Local architects are slowly establishing an outside reputation for beautiful, innovative and technologically advanced design while the city itself is beginning to shed its image as a place of uninspired modern architecture.
One of the most unique examples of Winnipeg's architecture community stepping out on an international stage is the recent announcement that local firm 5468796 Architecture and U of M professor Jae-Sung Chon will be the first Manitoba architects selected to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale, the world's most prestigious international art and architecture exhibition. Considered the 'Olympics of Architecture' the Biennale is a showcase for many of the world's great designers in a forum arranged in national pavilions, similar to that of a world expo.
The Winnipeg team will be exploring the influence migration and cultural background have on Canadian design, a topic that will certainly be one of the most provocative at the show.
Instead of creating an exhibit from their own singular perspective, the team has taken on the extraordinary challenge of running a national competition that will invite young architects to bring their own interpretation to the piece.
The competition entitled Migrating Landscapes, (www.migratinglandscapes.ca) will challenge entrants to create 'dwellings' that explore the personal cultural memories that influence them as designers. Whether a recent immigrant, third-generation or aboriginal Canadian, each designer will view the challenge through their own cultural lens while being bound together by the common thread of their Canadian environment. Models of the winning submissions will be inserted into a 'landscape' designed by the Winnipeg team forming the backdrop for the exhibit.
When brought together, it is hoped the composition will represent to the world the unique and diverse cultural tapestry that defines the contemporary Canadian design community.
Inspiring initiatives like the Venice Biennale, along with the continued development of creative new projects, will cultivate a greater awareness for Winnipeg architecture abroad and further establish the city's growing reputation as a place for innovative modern design.
As that spectacular web of steel rises over The Forks, our stunning new airport begins welcoming visitors and unique smaller designs continue to spring up across the city, an appreciation of Winnipeg's modern architectural quality will continue to grow locally and elsewhere.
In time we may look back on today as the beginning of a third golden era of Winnipeg architecture. A time, as they did a century ago when local designers reached out to the world for inspiration and global architects found their way here to add a dramatic new chapter to Winnipeg's distinct architectural narrative.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org