Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why our terminal shouldn't be terminated

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When Serena Keshavjee first arrived in Winnipeg from Toronto 15 years ago, she wasn't expecting what she found.

No, not our open and friendly manner or even our open, clear-blue Prairie sky.

As the assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg writes in her engrossing book, Winnipeg Modern Architecture (1945-1975), what she expected to find was the national historic site that is our turn-of-the-century Exchange District.

But what she also spotted, scattered all over the city, was another architectural treasure trove known as mid-century modernist; the likes of which most Winnipeggers drive past every day but wouldn't recognize if they landed at what is arguably its most important example.

Which most of us have.

The cover of Keshavjee's book features a black-and-white winter photo of that example, our airport terminal, which is appropriate given the black-and-white extremes of the controversy that has enveloped it.

It's a terminal that has been declared terminal.

"When the Winnipeg airport terminal opened in 1964," writes book contributor Bernard Flaman, "it was hailed as one of the most remarkable structures in the city... . Spacious, sophisticated and modern, it fed the romantic expectations of air travel in the early days of the jet age."

Not only that, but it was one of a series of Canadian airport terminals built by Ottawa, in the same basic style, between 1958 and 1968.

"These extraordinary efforts represented a desire on the part of the federal government to convey a thoroughly modern and up-to-date national image that would serve as an introduction to the foreign traveller," Flaman writes.

Now, it's the last one standing.

Yet, the Winnipeg Airports Authority wants to bulldoze the old building now that the new and modern-in-its-own-way James Richardson International Airport terminal is set to open next door.

And the WAA seems to have lots of people who'd be happy to climb behind the controls and help them.

"They put out a request for proposals on this place years ago," one pal told me. "and no one gave a s .

"Now, all of a sudden, it's some historic landmark? Bulldoze the thing. It's brutal. It's always been brutal."

The WAA did put out requests for proposals years ago, that's true.

The part about no one caring, no one pitching a proposal and that suddenly it's a historic landmark isn't true.

The WAA's spin is enough to make you dizzy. It claims that despite years of trying, it hasn't been able to attract a "viable" someone who could create an alternative use for an airport that's too structurally crippled to be rehabilitated.

It's hard to believe.

If it were so feeble and so hopeless, why did the WAA even try to find a use for the old terminal?

And five years ago, when it did find someone -- in the person of a heavyweight local developer such as Shelter Canadian Properties Ltd., president Arni Thorsteinson -- why did the WAA brand his proposal as not viable?

What's wrong with Western Canada Aviation Museum using part of the building and turning over the rest to revenue-generating commercial development, as a feasibility study recommended and Thorsteinson appeared ready to do?

Instead, the WAA is preparing to spend millions of dollars -- that we the travelling public supply -- to demolish the old airport, while the museum appears content to tell visitors all about our storied high-flying past in a new building erected on the old site.

Instead of a building that's a part of that past.

Make sense to you?

My sense of it is the WAA simply wants something shiny and new to match its shiny and new terminal.

But, in its own way, the old airport terminal is better than new. It has not only seen almost every famous and accomplished person to visit our city since the mid-1960s, it's a VIP in its own right.

Back in the mid-20th century, Ottawa also meant the airport's architecture and the commissioned art therein to be something else. A unifying force.

Now it's the last one standing.

It's historic and architecturally unique -- and it's ours.

My testy pal, the one who'd like to climb behind the bulldozer controls, would counter this way:

"I am glad this city isn't run by the experts in architecture. We'd still have Eaton's on Portage."

Eaton's was the original big-box store, not a national architectural gem.

Of course, our city isn't run by architects. It's run by people who wouldn't know what vision is if you pointed it out to them from the airport control tower.

And by people who can't seem to see our past as our future, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2011 B1

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