Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not all modern designs work

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There was a time not so long ago that if a red cone 100 feet high were built in the centre of Portage Avenue I would have welcomed it. Any development, however gauche, that happened in the downtown or anywhere close to it, was to be welcomed.

That was then and this is now.

The downtown may still not be as vibrant as many of us would wish it to be, but it's remarkably better than it was a decade ago. In the west, University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy has moved into and developed buildings around the old Wesley College. The owners of The Bay department store at the corner of Portage and Memorial have offered the university two floors, giving the prospect of new life to one of Winnipeg's most attractive sites.

Elsewhere, The Forks will be the home for the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the MTS Centre on Portage has established itself as one of the best entertainment centres in the country and has put Winnipeg back on the "A list" for major touring bands.

The West Exchange District has seen the opening of a number of boutiques and cafés.

So the question now is not just can we get development to happen? It's also: Will the development fit in with a nationally recognized heritage district? To put that in some kind of context, there are many places in the Exchange District where a film crew can place a camera and swing it around in a full circle so that an audience sees a full representation of a setting from a century ago. There are few places in North America where that is possible.

This is not an argument for preserving The Exchange as a natural backlot for film companies, it is just a way of showing the depth of the treasure we have.

How far, though, should that treasure be protected? The main reason Winnipeg is blessed with an entire district of nearly unchanged early 20th century commercial buildings is because of the slowness of the city's economic development. The Exchange District was built at a time of great economic growth. The buildings remained, but the business that had filled them disappeared.

Slowly but surely it has been coming back. Now there is a potential conflict between preservation and renewal. The architects who designed the metal cube stage in Old Market Square have designed a glass-sided condominium to go atop a small, character building on Bannatyne Avenue. Like The Cube in Old Market Square, the design is becoming the centre of much controversy.

Should new development in the Exchange reflect its historical nature or contrast with it? What, in any case, does it mean to have buildings that fit in with the character of an area?

The traditionalist approach to development is to be seen in the preservation of the old storefronts that face Princess Street on the Red River College building. The building itself is largely new construction. The effect is both traditional and pleasing. Similar careful redevelopment is happening at the Union Bank Tower on Main Street. The building that I work in, which houses Birks the jewellers on the ground floor, looks very much like it did when it was constructed 90 years ago.

Careful restoration, though, is not the only way to develop or to make an area artistically interesting. In Toronto, the architect Daniel Libeskind produced a jagged glass and metal structure to expand the Royal Ontario Museum that is all about contrast. The Frank Gehry-designed curved structure that expanded the Art Gallery of Ontario is an eye-popping glass extravaganza that mirrors the old buildings opposite.

My point is that all developments in older areas do not have to harken back to the architecture of a century ago. Dramatic architecture can act as a catalyst for development. Outstanding modern designs contrasting with heritage buildings can serve to underline a sense of growth and purpose in a way that refurbishments and renovations in traditional style do not. Not all modern designs work, though. I would argue The Cube in Old Market Square is not an improvement aesthetically or practically. Placing a new-style condominium on a Bannatyne building may not work either.

Bringing new style designs into a heritage area is a risk. Designs that look good today can just look tired and old-fashioned in 20 years. But excitement is never created by playing safe. Much as I might like the Exchange District to be the perfect backlot for period films, I would prefer the city made the kind of bold decisions that showed confidence in the future. That means mixing it up a bit. There are buildings and streets that should be preserved, but we need the Exchange to have a modern feeling, too.

But please, no red cones.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2010 A12

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