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The Cube scores major design award

Things now shaping up nicely for Winnipeg's 5468796 Architecture

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People walk through Old Market Square past The Cube in Winnipeg's Exchange District.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

People walk through Old Market Square past The Cube in Winnipeg's Exchange District. Photo Store

Some musicians call it the Cheese Grater. Most Winnipeggers know it as the Cube.

Now, the hypermodernist stage in Old Market Square is also known as a medal-worthy piece of architecture after earning national honours for its creators, 5468796 Architecture co-founders Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme.

On Wednesday, the Canada Council for the Arts and Royal Architectural Institute of Canada named the Winnipeg firm one of 12 winners of the 2014 Governor General's medal for architecture.

It's all because of the Cube. The Borg-like box in Old Market Square is "a small urban gesture but a large contribution to the city," the GG medal jurors wrote in their comments.

"This building works on many levels: as sculpture, performing stage, folly and meeting place," according to the jury statement.

"Its innovative and flexible design allows for constant transformation to accommodate a variety of programs and activities, year-round. It expands the realm of possibilities associated with a band stand and is a shining reminder of the architect's responsibility to animate the public realm."

The Borg-like box in Old Market Square is 'a small urban gesture but a large contribution to the city,' the GG medal jurors wrote in their comments

Formerly known as the Masseys, the GG medals are handed out every two years and are considered among Canada's highest architectural honours.

The decision to recognize the Cube, officially known as the OMS Stage, comes as a vindication for Hurme and Radulovic, given the notoriety of their $1.1-million, concrete-and-aluminum creation.

Originally envisioned as an artwork-cum-stage that would serve as a four-season replacement for an underutilized Old Market Square bandshell, the Cube has served as a lightning rod for criticism since it opened in 2010.

Heritage purists decried the presence of a hypermodernist structure in the middle of Winnipeg's Exchange District, a national historic site known for neo-classical warehouse buildings.

The Exchange District Business Improvement Zone and the City of Winnipeg -- who commissioned the structure -- had more pragmatic concerns.

During the stage's first summer, the aluminum curtains that comprise its chain-mail "skin" could not be retracted high enough to give performers enough headroom or allow access to the stairwell that leads to the stage's upper level.

Tweaks were made for 2011, but haphazard operation of the curtains led to problems with rivets, pulleys, cables and winches and an early end to the 2012 season due to safety concerns.

Renovations in early 2013 largely solved the problem. So did a decision to leave the curtains open for the entire summer rather than attempt to constantly raise and lower the heavy metal skin.

"Before we built the Cube, the stage at Old Market Square was used maybe 20 times a summer," Radulovic said Wednesday in an interview. "Now, they're up to 100 events. They would be lifting it three times a day. That's a lot of wear and tear."

Complaints from performers and festivals evaporated in 2013, said Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange BIZ.

He's now looking forward to installing the final missing piece of the structure -- electronics that will allow it to be illuminated all winter as well as motion sensors that will allow colour schemes to change as pedestrians pass by.

The programming was supposed to be installed this winter but that was scuttled by the severe cold. With the installation coming this summer, Timmerman said he's finally satisfied with the stage.

"It's definitely an innovative, cutting-edge structure," he said Wednesday. "There is nothing else like it."

The city has formally taken possession of the stage, a move that signals it, too, is satisfied all the original design deficiencies have been rectified.

The question of whether the Cube fits into Old Market Square should be considered in the overall context of the Exchange District, said John Kiernan, the city's urban design manager.

"It highlights the heritage of the area rather than detracts from it," said Kiernan, noting the nearby presence of other modernist structures, such as city hall and the Public Safety Building.

"We talk about legitimacy and authenticity. Well, rather than create faux-heritage, the creative thing to do is build something of its own."

In 2010, the Cube earned 5468796 Architecture a commendation from the London-based Architectural Review magazine and the Royal Institute of British Architecture. Radulovic and Hurme are more heartened by the GG.

"This is gigantic. It's something that confirms hard work pays off," Radulovic said. "Usually, people who get this have been in the business for eons."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2014 A5

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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