Nearly 20 years ago, the swirling titanium panels of a new Guggenheim Museum transformed a blue-collar city named Bilbao, Spain into a flourishing centre of culture and design. This inspired cities across the globe to build ever-more sensational public buildings, hoping to recreate the elusive "Bilbao Effect."
As Winnipeg prepares to open its own iconic museum, the lesson that can be learned from the experience of these cities is translating a building like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights into a broader development catalyst, requires a focused effort to build complementary projects that expand the museum's influence beyond its walls.
The opportunity for this development in Winnipeg begins with the massive parking lots that sit directly across from the museum at The Forks. Last week, a conceptual master plan for the five-hectare site along the raised rail line was made public, quickly receiving approval by the standing policy committee on downtown development.
Leading up to the submission of the report, The Forks Renewal Corporation undertook a public consultation process through workshops, interviews and online engagement, to distill a guiding vision for the design. The overall findings outlined a general desire to enhance the current experience at The Forks and improve its economic viability by strengthening connections to downtown, creating public green space, active commercial storefronts and cultural amenities.
As a member of the project's design team at Number Ten Architectural Group, I will outline the response to these goals, not as an advocate for the plan, but as a means of providing background and clarity to the ideas, before The Forks engages in a second round of community consultation.
The key design response is to begin transforming The Forks from a drive-in-drive-out destination into a living, breathing community that will support the long-term viability of the varied components of the public vision. The success of The Forks and all great public spaces comes from enabling opportunities for people to engage with each other. People are attracted to people. A permanent residential population enhances this experience by providing off-hour activity that energizes the park space and creates a demand for existing and new retail long after the tourists have gone home. Residential development may help break down the barriers that divide The Forks from the downtown as people come and go throughout the day, working in the adjacent neighbourhoods and engaging their amenities.
Although the development area appears to be a single continuous parking lot, it is two parcels of land with very different personalities. The proposed design reflects these differences in character.
South of the York Avenue entrance, the Rail Side land owned by The Forks, is a site that feels as though it is part of The Forks experience and directly engages the CMHR across the street. The design for this site begins with a multi-storey parkade located along the rail line to accommodate The Forks, CMHR and the new development. A desire to hide the structure from view was seen as an opportunity to create a rare vertical Winnipeg landscape that rises up as a terraced green space to the rooftop of the parkade.
As a hillside, the new park will offer recreational experiences not currently available at The Forks in all seasons. It is envisioned as a place of contemplation and decompression after a visit to the museum, possibly a sculpture garden or interpretive cultural space, fronted by a wide tree-lined promenade and commercial storefronts embedded into the landscape along the edge of the sidewalk. The park will be the museum's front yard, a unique public space offering sweeping views to the skyline, across The Forks, and back to the towering glass structure itself.
From the top of an active parkade roof, connections may be made over the rail line to future development along Main Street, or as an access point to a rapid-transit stop envisioned for Union Station. Mixed-use residential towers at each end of the park are set back from the street and kept lower to reduce their visual impact on The Forks site.
North of York Avenue is the city-owned Parcel 4 property. Far from the activity of the waterfront, its location provides an opportunity to act as a gateway that builds stronger physical connections with the downtown. To enhance this relationship, the design envisions a place that draws the urban character of the adjacent neighbourhoods into The Forks site.
The plan is organized around a new curb-less cobblestone street that winds through the property, opening to an active urban plaza, lined with patios and trees. Sidewalk connections run through buildings and under the rail line to increase the pedestrian permeability of the area. Site lines along the street focus toward the CMHR, drawing pedestrians through the property.
Buildings will be constructed to the sidewalk edge to enclose the field of vision, creating an "urban room" with a sense of intimacy and human scale. Mixed-use towers are allowed to be taller on Parcel 4 to provide high commercial and residential density, but they will sit atop Vancouver-style podiums of four or five storeys that reduce the building scale and allow sunlight to the sidewalks. Storefronts of shops and restaurants lining the street will be active and transparent, built with a fine detail and visual texture that animates the eye-level experience. This will promote walk-ability and enhance pedestrian connections to Portage and Main and the Exchange District.
The master plan for the Rail Side and Parcel 4 properties prescribes 60 per cent of the land be used for public space. Design guidelines will require high-quality, environmentally sustainable buildings that promote activity. The hope is they will offer experiences not currently available at The Forks and grow to become the vibrant heart of a new residential community on the site.
A second round of public consultation to take place on July 23 and 26 (www.theforks.com/railside) at The Forks Market, will provide all Winnipeggers an opportunity to help refine this vision to ensure that most important public place continues to flourish while helping the city to capitalize on the transformative potential of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.