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New Exchange stage interacts with passersby

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A new stage nearing completion in Old Market Square has the potential to end Winnipeg's reputation for occasionally building boring public amenities.

The $1.25-million structure under construction in the Exchange District gathering spot has a curtain comprised of chain mail, a series of motion sensors and light projectors and a minimalist design inspired by the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The nine-square-metre concrete stage is designed to react to people passing by. Lights located inside a curtain comprised of 20,000 pieces of extruded aluminum will project different colours and shapes, based on the movement outside the curtain, said project manager Sasa Radulovic.

"The idea was to create something of interest 365 days a year, whether there's a concert or not at Old Market Square," said Radulovic, principal of 5468796 Architecture, the Exchange District firm behind the design. "We realized the only way it could function as part of the square is if it doesn't feel empty when it's not serving as a stage."

The new stage, slated to open in mid-June, replaces a bandstand demolished last fall on the north side of the park. The construction project -- funded by the Winnipeg Foundation, CentreVenture and several levels of government -- is the second phase of an Old Market Square facelift that began in 2009 with new landscaping and drainage.

Throughout the summer, the square is the focal point for festivals such as Jazz Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival and also serves a weekday lunch spot for office workers. But the old stage tended to be underused.

The new structure will be more flexible because it can be configured to face south or north, has two levels for musicians and will also have a green room for performers, Radulovic said. "You can do all kinds of stuff," he said, noting it's possible to place a DJ or musicians on the upper level and allow audiences to dance on the main level.

Radulovic also said his firm invented a form of angled aluminum plates to allow the stage to appear to change shape, with the help of the sensors and lights, when people pass by. Similar interactive devices exist in public spaces such as Millennium Park in Chicago.

"It's supposed to be mysterious. It's supposed to change, depending on how you look at it," he said of the new Winnipeg stage. "It isn't a static object, even though (a cube) is the most static object you can choose."

The new stage will undergo technical testing next week and should be ready in time for a June 17 launch, said Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone.

He hoped to enshroud the structure beneath tarps until the launch, but the ongoing construction work made it impossible to obscure the chain-mail curtain.

The metal sheet serves no security purpose, said Timerman, calling the chain mail "an entirely artistic choice."

After the launch, the first concert to utilize the new stage is slated to be the Manitoba Electronic Music Exhibition on June 19, said Meghan Athavale, artistic director of POMO Project, the firm setting up the projection system.

The 2010 Jazz Winnipeg Festival follows on June 25.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2010 A7

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