Winnipeggers have traditionally had an off and on relationship with the architecture of their city. At the beginning of the last century we built with the optimism of a young metropolis destined to become the Paris of the Prairies. We raised the tallest building in the country and the finest marble and terra-cotta banking halls on the continent stood as a symbol of our promise. Winnipeg was animated with finely manicured parks, bustling sidewalks and busy urban plazas. Its citizens held a deeply rooted connection to their built environment. They had big-city solutions for big-city dreams.
In the decades ending that century, we became indifferent to the built quality of our city. Buildings were no longer constructed with the same permanence. The suburbs exploded, our parks fell into disrepair, the city centre was deserted and urban planning became an exercise in traffic management. We even gave our most famous intersection a makeover with all the charm of a freeway exit ramp.
Today, things appear to be changing. With several world-renowned architects putting their signature on our city and local firms winning prestigious awards for their creative work, Winnipeggers seem to be taking notice and are slowly engaging in a dialogue about the issues of design in our built environment. Recent public outcry over a proposed hotel and waterpark across from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights served as an example of this newfound engagement.
To further stimulate this conversation, a number of grassroots organizations have emerged, working together to incubate a culture of design in Winnipeg and heighten appreciation for the city's urban landscape within the broader community.
During the past three years, an organization called Storefront Manitoba (www.digitalfront.org) has been cultivating an interdisciplinary dialogue across Winnipeg's creative community that also works to engage the public. They have undertaken initiatives such as: the Architecture + Design Film Festival; Parking Day, where artists and designers transform metered parking spaces into temporary public exhibits; and Frontlines, an urban issues series in partnership with the Winnipeg Free Press Caf©.
Storefront's current exhibition, called Cool Gardens, can be seen around and near The Forks. Six temporary garden installations offer relief from the summer sun and celebrate the role of public space and contemporary design in our urban environment. The exhibition includes: a tribute to the Hotel Fort Garry's centennial anniversary with a grid of 100 Elms in its front boulevard; a series of grassy orbs forming Cool Dots on the landscape along The Forks sidewalk; striking yellow tent-like structures called TILT at the base of Esplanade Riel; a Blue Stick Garden perfect for kids to weave in, through and around; a Beachscape along the main harbour riverbank; and an active Carousel made of recycled metal fences, shopping carts and a light post.
Starting on Sept. 18, Storefront will host its marquee event, the second annual Winnipeg Design Festival (www.winnipegdesignfestival.net), celebrating architecture, art and design through a series of lectures, tours, symposiums and exhibits.
The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation (www.winnipegarchitecture.ca) is another grassroots organization that has dedicated itself to enhancing public education and awareness of the city's built heritage. The foundation focuses on Winnipeg's existing buildings with special interest in design from the mid-century Modernist era. It offers educational walking, biking and even bus tours that highlight different architectural themes or neighbourhoods across the city.
The foundation's current exhibit, Building Toys, is on display at the RAW Gallery of Architecture and Design. It presents the history of architectural toys such as LEGO, Lincoln Logs and even wooden blocks, showcasing creations from local designers while offering visitors the opportunity to create their own building in a special construction zone.
As Winnipeggers become more engaged in discussion about their built environment, individual programs are also finding traction and success. Heritage Winnipeg's Doors Open celebration has become a popular event as buildings of architectural and historical significance across the city welcome visitors for a weekend, providing guided tours, exhibits and performances.
Increasingly popular Jane's Walks, named after celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs, is a series of free walking tours held on the first weekend in May that allows people to come together and celebrate the history and stories of Winnipeg's great streets and neighbourhoods.
Demonstrating how pervasive Winnipeg's burgeoning interest in architecture and design has become, even Corydon's newest hipster hangout Make / Coffee + Stuff, opened its doors earlier this month with a showcase of drawings and models of custom-designed local houses.
We all live in buildings, work in buildings and play in buildings. We spend almost 90 per cent of our lives inside a building. They can inspire us or dishearten us. They drive our economy, making cities attractive to immigration, tourism and investment. They shape the way we live and influence the way we interact with each other. Their placement on the street affects how we use the spaces around and between them. Through these and other avenues, Winnipeggers are showing greater interest in the design of their built environment and its effect on our lives. With increased public understanding we will be able to work together to mould our city as it grows, ensuring Winnipeg's future is one of creativity, beauty and prosperity.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.
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