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In Conversation with Hijab Mitra

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Architect Hijab Mitra designed the plans for the redeveloped Merchant Hotel.


Architect Hijab Mitra designed the plans for the redeveloped Merchant Hotel. Photo Store

It was one of Winnipeg's humblest historic buildings, best known for bar fights and welfare day drunkenness.

Now, the Merchants Hotel on Selkirk Avenue is getting an overhaul, with glass walls, cedar accents and feather-shaped pillars.

Local architect Hijab Mitra says the $13-million project isn't based on any highfalutin design pomposity or the preconceived ideas of outsiders, but on what North Enders actually said they wanted.

Over the course of a year, the India-born Mitra went door-to-door around Selkirk Avenue, chatted up people at neighbourhood parties and hung out at Neechi Foods to make sure the building really reflected the wishes of residents, especially those who might not attend a traditional public meeting.

One elder imagined the new Merch like a turtle, protected on the outside but beautiful and light on the inside, so Mitra designed an open portico along Selkirk Avenue that echoes the shelter of a shell. Another elder imagined a building that glows at night so the happy faces inside can be seen from the street. So, Mitra worked to illuminate the feather-shaped pillars that run along the building.

The new and expanded Merch, slated to open in the fall of 2016, will house classroom and educational space for young people and adults as well as 30 affordable apartments earmarked for students.

The Free Press' Mary Agnes Welch sat down with Mitra to learn more about the Merch.


Q: What was your impression of the Merch beforehand?


A: I'd heard a little bit about the Merch. I think the most interesting thing, and what attracted us to the project was to transform the neighbourhood, and the opportunity to work with a historic building and transform a corner. As an architect, you usually get to design just a building, You don't get to transform a neighbourhood or an entire corner. That's what the project was all about.


Q: What were the parts of that building or corner you wanted to make sure you kept?


A: The most important thing was that historic building. Selkirk Avenue has a long history, from 1881 to 2014. And also, it was a place that attracted a lot of immigrants, a lot of culture, a lot of diversity, so that is one thing we wanted to keep in the project.


Q: The design is fairly modern, so how did you mix those?


A: As architects, we followed a very different way of designing. We didn't try to make this a modern building or fit with the historic component. We focused on the voices of the community. We tried to validate all these voices of the community in built form. So, one of the principles was "turning the corner." That was our concept. We went door-to-door on Pritchard Avenue and there was this girl who told us her biggest fear when the hotel was running was turning that corner. So, we removed the corner. That's how the building evolved. It had nothing to do with modernism or having a 'look' for the building. We believe that people had a vision for the community and our job was just to bring that vision to life.


Q: Have you ever done a building like this?


A: We try to structure every building based on what the community needs, and come up with a structured plan from the very beginning. I have a lot of global experience. I worked in England and Dubai before coming here, and I worked on a very similar project in England called Lace Market Square (in Nottingham). It was similar to the Selkirk Avenue project in that people weren't coming down to the square, people weren't moving there and people kept blaming the architectural environment and they changed that to a mixed-use facility with students and commercial elements. It brought back life into downtown. I used that knowledge from England to come back to Selkirk Avenue.


Q: Did you know much about aboriginal culture before this?


A: I should honestly say no. I learned a lot working with the community. I do have a very close aboriginal friend but I don't think I knew so much about the culture. But it was very easy for me to relate to the community because I come from a very orthodox East-Indian background and there are a lot of similarities in the culture and that really helped me connect with people.


Q: Is this how you do your practice, where you try to go into a project without any preconceived ideas and consultation drives it?


A: Yes. We would like every project to be driven by consultation. We don't want to build just another building. There are a lot of people in Winnipeg who have the talent to just keep building buildings. We want to revitalize neighbourhoods. We want to densify our communities and make them complete, working in tighter footprints and densifying our central core and bringing people back. I don't want to be an architect who is building another building. I want it to reflect what the community wants, what the voices say It is possible to make beautiful designs from what people say. I want this to be an example of how architecture in Winnipeg has to change based on what communities want.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 D3

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