In 1912, Winnipeg peaked. The cosmopolitan and bustling young city of 170,000 people was riding a wave of affluence and growth that was without rival in North America. That year, 5,328 buildings were constructed, a boom of prosperity that continues to define the physical character of our city a century later. With a population that had tripled in the previous decade, what had become the third largest city in Canada was the undisputed king of the Prairies.
As office towers pushed skyward along Main Street and new residential districts grew away from the rivers, Winnipeg's optimistic young population looked to create a quality of life that would match the older centres of the east. In an effort to construct a "civilized" new metropolis, they would build grand cultural institutions befitting a city whose destiny was thought to be the stature of a Canadian Chicago. Theatres like the Capitol, Metropolitan, Walker and Pantages would rise in the downtown and a group of prominent businessmen would contribute $200 each to rent space in the new Industrial Bureau Building, providing a home for the Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts, Canada's first civic art gallery.
Now known as the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), the century-old institution is the centre of a flourishing cultural community that has grown to define the artistic spirit of our city. Today, more than 25,000 people in Winnipeg work in the arts and creative industries, representing four per cent of the city's economic output and 17 per cent of tourist spending. Winnipeg is known internationally as a place of creativity and artistic expression, inspired by the WAG over those 100 years.
In 1967, as the WAG grew in stature to become the sixth-largest gallery in Canada, the decision was made to establish a permanent home on a triangular piece of land along Memorial Boulevard. An international design competition was held that garnered global attention, with 109 submissions from architects around the world.
In the end, prominent local architect Gustavo da Rosa was chosen to design the iconic structure. He worked with associate firm Waisman Ross Blankenstein Coop Gillmor Hanna (now Number Ten Architectural Group) on the dramatic design that would soon redefine the western edge of downtown.
The competition submission was celebrated by the jury as a dignified and sensitive response to the challenge. It stands today as a landmark in our city and is respected internationally as an important example of late Modernist architecture.
Like a great piece of art, the building can be interpreted in different ways. Its distinctive wedge shape, a response to the restrictive triangular site, might be seen as an iceberg, or maybe the prow of a ship. The gallery's image is defined by stark planes of limestone that establish an imposing visual mass. Its minimalist design incorporates subtle moves to create dramatic effect; a vertical slice in the wall forms a signature image in the skyline and hints at the activity on the roof terrace; an overlapping plane splays open to create a powerful entrance at ground level. The northern corner comes together in a striking knife edge that leads a viewer's eye down the wall of stone to the dome of the Legislative Building in the distance.
The most significant achievement of the WAG's unique design is 40 years ago, it represented the latest in architectural thinking, and yet today it is as unique, powerful and elegant as it was when it opened, its timeless expression an iconic symbol of our city.
As the Winnipeg Art Gallery celebrates its centennial anniversary, it has embarked on an exciting new initiative to lead it into its second century. To house its collection of contemporary Inuit art, the world's largest, the process has begun to design and construct a new Inuit Art and Learning Centre directly south of the existing gallery. An international call for design teams was recently issued and as in 1967, response has come from around the globe, from many of the world's most renowned architects.
Whoever is given the honour of designing the new gallery addition will be faced with the complex challenge of developing an innovative and distinct building that respects and enhances the character of its iconic neighbour. A structure that remains as timeless in its esthetic as the original building will stand as an enduring and proud symbol of Winnipeg and of the Inuit people.
Great cities are built on the foundation of their artistic communities. The arts make significant economic, social and quality-of-life contributions to urban areas. They can define the image of a city, attracting immigration, investment and tourism while enhancing the personal fulfilment of its citizens. As it moves into its second century, the Winnipeg Art Gallery will continue to form the backbone of our city's growing cultural and artistic community, just as it has for the past 100 years.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.