Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A portrait of the artist

The man who'll shape our skyline

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Antoine Predock is renowned for his splashy entrances and today is no exception.

Fashionably late on a brutally hot August morning, Predock dashes out of the brightness of the day and bounds up the stairs of a small cottage, one of a labyrinthian complex of century-old structures in downtown Albuquerque that serve as the studio and offices for his architecture practice. The 74-year-old architect is a symphony in black and grey. He is wearing a black windbreaker, black long-sleeved T-shirt, baggy charcoal sweat pants and black military-style hiking boots. He removes a matte-black Bell motorcycle helmet to reveal his most recognizable feature -- a shock of white hair. The outfit makes sense once you understand that, whenever and wherever possible, Predock commutes by motorcycle. He prefers racing bikes and is renowned for his love of speed. All of which makes his lateness a bit mystifying; it's probably more correct to say that Predock moves to his own clock.

Today, Predock is proudly showing off the "Canada room." It is in fact not a room, but a small bungalow that has been dedicated to seven years of work on the design of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. At first blush, it's like walking into the home of a stalker, or perhaps a hit man.

The interior of the home is a painstaking, almost obsessive, study of Winnipeg and the museum design. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a room coated in photographs, posters and drawings of Winnipeg, Canada and other symbolic images that served as inspiration for his futuristic glass, steel and concrete design. Candid photos of Winnipeg are everywhere; shots of downtown heritage buildings, transit buses, the Forks (where the museum is being constructed) and the spire of the Promenade Riel, the bridge that hugs the museum site on its northern edge. Other images include giant eruptions of rock formations in desert settings, wind-carved icebergs and snowdrifts, tangles of tree roots and branches.

The Canada Room is a triumph of controlled mayhem, the product of someone who is both a hoarder and a neat freak. Dozens of models, too many to count, are stuffed on top of and beneath two large tables: complex polymer structures created by a state-of-the-art 3-D model-making machine, and smaller models hand-made of foam and cardboard. The earliest models start out as blobs but, over time, develop into the sharp lines and dramatic features of the museum now nearing completion at The Forks.

After examining the Canada Room, it's time to see the rest of the complex. Predock moves quickly, almost anxiously around and through the five buildings which combined make up his studio and offices. The buildings are connected by narrow passages and lush courtyards, some with gurgling, lily-clad gold fish ponds. Giant cottonwood trees loom overhead, providing some respite from the driving desert sun.

Two of the buildings are dedicated to working space for the two dozen architects and support staff that make up Predock's practice. Vintage motorcycles line the hallways. All of the rooms within the other buildings are storage for models and drawings of the other buildings he has designed.

Predock's body of work is impressive: from court houses and libraries to private homes, a Major League Baseball park in San Diego, and the school of architecture at his alma mater, the University of New Mexico. The long, elegant lines of his work, the sharp edges, rich colours and use of natural light are striking, haunting. But there is very little in his other work that foreshadows the design he unleashed in Canada.

From the giant concrete and stone roots reaching out from the base to the glass and steel tower rising 100 metres from ground level to the improbable glass cloud enveloping the western exposure of the building, the CMHR as conceived by Predock and his team is fantastical to say the least. For decades to come, centuries perhaps, it may well be the defining image of Winnipeg, as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco.

That doesn't mean it has escaped controversy.

Architects and their emissaries in the media have sneered at it. Self-identified pragmatists have scoffed at the idea of a glass-encased building in the harsh Prairie climate. Depending on the source, it is too big, too unusual, too expensive or too impractical.

Little of that talk affects Predock, a man who has spent his life carving out a worldwide reputation from the remoteness of the New Mexico desert, a place so forgotten in the American consciousness that Predock says he occasionally receives mail from other U.S. states with international postage affixed. Despite all that, he has risen to the peak of the architecture world. He is the recipient of the American Institute of Architecture's Gold Medal, and the Rome Prize in architecture.

Predock acknowledged that at first glance, the museum design is ambitious, perhaps even improbable in some of its elements. But Predock said that tension -- between the practical and impractical, the measurable and the immeasurable -- is exactly what he wanted. "Louis Kahn, the great architect, characterized it this way: architecture always starts with the unmeasurable. That's the intangible, the poetic qualities of the building. But then it has to go through the measurable. The engineers and drywall contractors and electricians. And hopefully, after all this, you break through to the unmeasurable again. That's the total game."

*****

You can be forgiven for wondering how in the world an architect from New Mexico renowned for southwest-inspired designs ended up designing a museum in Winnipeg.

Predock started out in 2003 as one of more than 100 architects from around the world bidding to build the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. He loathes architectural competitions and rarely enters without a formal invitation. But he made an exception for this building because he was intrigued by the museum's ambitious mandate. He was one of three finalists; the other two came from Montreal.

It seems like a mismatch until you realize that New Mexico in general, and Albuquerque in particular, have more in common with Manitoba and Winnipeg than Montreal does.

Albuquerque is a medium-sized city in a smallish state with vibrant aboriginal and Mexican-American communities. It is somewhat isolated from larger cities, in a state perceived as little more than a desolate outpost, a poor cousin to other more dynamic southwestern states like Texas and Nevada.

But even with all those parallels, it's safe to say that Winnipeg has never seen an artist like Predock, or a building like the one he has conceived for the human rights museum. To understand the building, you must understand the voyage that Predock took before he ever thought of Winnipeg and a museum for human rights.

Predock loves to tell people he's a "hillbilly from Missouri." He grew up in Lebanon, Missouri, a small city in a mostly rural state, the son of an industrial engineer who encouraged his son to pursue the same career after he graduated high school. Looking for a fresh start away from Missouri, he chose the University of New Mexico. His love of the west was cultivated on family trips to Arizona but his decision on where to attend university was a manifestation of that which influences so many young people. "I loved the west, no doubt," Predock said. "But I wanted to get the hell out of Missouri, I can tell you that."

Engineering school was not, however, a good fit. He did well at his studies, but didn't feel any passion for them. However, Predock was fortunate enough to take a course from Don Schlegel, an architect who was teaching technical drawing. "It was a class where we practised drawing machine parts and things like that. I was good at it but what I remember most was this guy, there was something about him. He really loved architecture. Without any kind of proselytizing, it sort of rubbed off on me."

Predock eventually dropped out of engineering school, and drifted briefly to Fort Worth, Texas, where his parents had moved, to clear his head. For a year, he worked for a clothier and even modelled some of the ensembles for ads in the local newspaper. It was during this time that, unsure what to do next, he took an aptitude test. Architecture popped up as one of the fields he might be good at. Predock said his father was not supportive, convinced his son wasn't "creative enough" to make a career in architecture and refused to pay for the $200 annual tuition. Undeterred, Predock returned to Albuquerque and UNM while working 40 hours a week as a construction project manager.

The best part of returning to Albuquerque was that it provided another opportunity to study with Don Schlegel. "My first course with Don, it was like a duck to water. There was no question, it was the great love of my life."

As he had already completed many of the engineering courses that architects were expected to take, he filled his electives with courses in poetry, painting and sculpture. He studied painting with Elaine de Kooning, a noted abstract expressionist. After four years of study in Albuquerque, Predock's talents began to outgrow the tiny architecture school and Schlegel, still a mentor, suggested he move on. In 1961, Predock found himself at Columbia University in New York City, a place that he said served as "a laboratory" to further explore the intersection of architecture and other art forms. . He worked in the model shop for I.M. Pei, the man who would go on to design the infamous Louvre Pyramid in Paris. He ran a dance studio with his girlfriend at the time, dancer and choreographer Jennifer Masley, who would later become his first wife. He found parallels between a dancer's movements and architecture.

After completing his degree at Columbia, Predock began several years of bohemian travel and artistic self discovery. He accepted a one-year fellowship to study in Spain, and filled in his free time with motorcycle adventures all over Europe. Returning to the U.S. in 1964, he dabbled in graduate studies at Harvard, but left after less than one year, short on money and patience for his Ivy League professors. Then it was on to San Francisco for an architectural internship and more exploration of dance and music, studying with icons of the post-modernist era such as Anna Halprin and John Cage.

In 1967, he returned to Albuquerque and was presented with an opportunity that would change the course of his life. Predock was approached by two neophyte developers who had a piece of land in the West Mesa area of Albuquerque and were interested in developing an adobe-inspired subdivision. "It was a completely flakey thing. They had no credentials or credibility but I liked them and decided to take a chance on it. I quit my other job and eventually, it turned into La Luz."

La Luz, Spanish for "the light," would see 96 single-family, updated adobe homes built into a gently rising slope. Rather than levelling the land to accept cookie-cutter homes and streets, Predock created the homes to fit into the natural environment. The result is a residential community that flows down the hillside, surrounded by thick desert vegetation. La Luz not only garnered national attention, it is still celebrated for its originality and its seamless conjoining with nature.

"It launched me, launched my practice. It put me on the road."

*****

It matters not what kind of building, or where it was built. Throughout history, large, expensive, and bold architectural projects have been greeted by the same reaction: contempt.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright's last major project and now one of the most recognizable structures on the planet, was the subject of great derision, much of it from fellow architects. Architecture fans all know the story about the first reaction to the Eiffel Tower. When the design was first unveiled in the late 1880s, a clutch of France's greatest artists and intellectuals wrote an open letter predicting that once the tower was erected, one of the greatest cities in all the world would be marred by "the odious shadow of the odious column built up of iron plates."

It should come as no surprise then that the descendants of those early naysayers were out in abundance when Predock's futuristic design was unveiled in 2005. Building a museum like this in Winnipeg had already made the project, in the minds of many commentators in the more self-important parts of the country, a bit of a folly. The choice of a New Mexican architect like Predock compounded the incredulity.

"A swizzle stick that emerges from a transparent lollipop," one particularly cranky Toronto scribe wrote of Predock's design. "Bizarre is probably the best way to describe it."

Canadian architects Guy Prefontaine and Etienne Gaboury, designers of the wonderful Riel Promenade and its now iconic knife-like spire, were predictably upset that the Predock museum would destroy the symmetry and sightlines they envisioned for the bridge design. Local architects such as Steve Cohlmeyer, who was instrumental in designing The Forks waterfront, lamented that the building was a "one-shot wow" that would never become iconic. Some faculty at the University of Manitoba's school of architecture expressed concern the building is simply too big for the site. It didn't help that Predock beat out Canadian architects, a decision that tickled the nationalistic gag reflex.

Some in the Canadian architecture community objected to the fact that half of the jurists on the museum's architectural review committee were, in fact, not architects. "Most architects were utterly disappointed by the ultimate selection," said Ian Chodikoff, editor of Canadian Architect magazine. "Moreover, the design is an expensive one, not so much in terms of initial costs but in terms of long-term operating costs." There is also a profound concern that Predock, renowned for his use of light and landscape in a desert setting, is out of his element in Canada. "(Predock) understands the desert, its climate, its light conditions," he said. "This is Predock at his best. His other work -- notably the institutional work in California and his speculative work in China, Denmark loses its design finesse rather quickly."

In particular, Chodikoff said Canadian architects are becoming weary of "incompetent designs" by so-called starchitects that must be "competently resolved" by local architects and engineers to reflect the reality of our climate. In this regard, Chodikoff said the real story here is the work being done by Winnipeg's Smith Carter Architects and Crosier Kilgour and Partners engineers, which are charged with "transforming Predock's fanciful design into a reality for the public experience."

It would be hard to be an architect of Predock's accomplishment without having to fend off criticism. However, like many notable architects, he both endures and invites this criticism. "It all goes with the territory," Predock said. "I think when you make a new artistic statement, it always produces controversy. I'm totally comfortable with the controversy." Graham Hogan, one of Predock's associates and a lead architect on site at the museum construction, said the wonderful and maddening thing about Predock is that he knows no fear when throwing himself into a project. "It drives me crazy sometimes," Hogan said, "But when Antoine decides to go for something, he really goes for it. He's completely fearless."

For Predock, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the latest expression of an artistic and architectural style that has been 50 years in the making. One of Predock's key inspirations is the writing of Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges, and in particular his fantastical short story, Funes the Memorious, the story of a young boy who, after a crippling accident, is able to recall everything he sees, hears, and experiences in full detail and forever.

Predock said that like Borges's protagonist, his work is an embodiment of cumulative memory: every motorcycle trip, every sketch, every sensory experience. He acknowledged that the glass-encased museum design was probably not possible back in the late 1960s when he was doing La Luz. "Like Funes, the cup is always filling up," Predock said. "The spiritual vessel, the intellectual vessel is filling up all the time. And you stir it like a big cauldron.

"And then you live your life. You can call it personality, or being an old fart. But there's an advantage of living a long time and accumulating all that content. When you think about it, our lives are just exponents of all that memory."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

This is the first of several in-depth pieces by Dan Lett on the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights now rising at The Forks.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2010 H1

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