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Rights museum awe-inspiring icon that will make our city world-class

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It takes a lot more than pothole-free streets and efficient snow removal to make a great city.

You also need great stuff, the kind of world-class stuff that touches the hearts and minds of the people who live there and inspires the people who live far away to come and check it out.

You need stuff like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the towering, architectural icon of glass, stone, concrete and steel at The Forks.

I know this because, on Thursday, I toured the massive $351-million structure, the first national museum located outside Canada's Capital Region.

The truth is, I tagged along with a buddy, standup comedian Big Daddy Tazz, who is hosting a May 30 fundraising gala for the museum at which electric guitars built by students at Selkirk Junior High School -- and autographed by an impressive roster of international celebrities -- will be auctioned off.

It is not easy to describe the sense of wonder and amazement you get as you make your way through the spacious halls and galleries of this museum, expected to open in the second half of 2014, but if I had to sum up the experience in a single word, that word would be: Wow!

This is not just a building. It's a work of art. I realize opinions vary, but for me, it was like staring at one of those mind-boggling, iconic drawings of the legendary artist M.C. Escher sprung to life. From the exterior, which most of us have seen, it's breathtaking. From the inside, which far fewer have seen, it's even more spectacular.

The museum rises from a base of four massive stone "roots" meant to represent humanity's connection to the Earth. "Three of the roots will be covered with tall grass prairie and we'll be doing that landscaping any day now when the snow is gone," chuckled Angela Cassie, the museum's communications manager. "The fourth will form an outdoor amphitheatre."

Tucked inside the roots, visitors will find classrooms, a 350-seat theatre, a temporary gallery, ticketing facilities, a restaurant and a retail shop.

Our tour began in the sprawling Buhler Hall, a cavernous meeting place, with a floor designed to resemble cracked Red River mud and massive girders on the ceiling to support the huge load created by the Stuart C. Clark Garden of Contemplation on Level 2.

Around every turn is an architectural feature that literally takes a visitor's breath away. The museum's 10 galleries, which will house the main exhibits, are stacked one atop the other, in a massive structure known as "the mountain," created using more than 18,000 square metres of Manitoba Tyndall stone.

We reached the galleries by trudging up stairways in our steel-toed boots, but when the museum opens, visitors will ascend via a kilometre-long network of signature ramps clad in white alabaster, quarried in Spain and lit from within with LED lights. Yes, they have elevators, too.

As you ascend the five levels, your journey literally takes you along a path of gradually receding darkness. "It's the architectural theme of the building -- a journey from darkness to light as you connect with the concept of human rights and start to see hope," explained Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum's media relations manager.

The galleries, which have yet to be formally named or filled with interactive exhibits, are connected by the cavernous Hall of Hope, formed by two black graphite-concrete walls rising to 57 metres and criss-crossed by the glowing alabaster ramps.

"The ramps are meant to represent ribbons of hope, weaving people through the museum," Cassie noted.

On the second level, the Garden of Contemplation, filled on this day with scurrying construction workers, is designed as an area of quiet contemplation featuring infinity pools and gardens carved from more than 600 tonnes of basalt, a volcanic rock quarried in Mongolia and pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle.

From the garden, we gazed out through the iconic glass "cloud" that wraps around the northern facade of the museum. Formed from hundreds of custom-cut glazed panes, it is meant to resemble the wings of a dove hugging the museum.

Forgive me for being mushy, but after taking in the panoramic view from the cloud and the observation deck on the Tower of Hope, which rises to a peak of 100 metres, you will never see this city with the same eyes again.

"This is an absolute world-class building," Fitzhenry said from inside the cloud. "To me, this is the most amazing building I've ever been in in my life. I've lived in Australia and been inside the Sydney Opera House and, quite frankly, it sucks in comparison to our museum."

My buddy, Big Daddy Tazz, was initially a cynic, but Thursday's tour won him over. "I'm a convert," Tazz chirped. "I came in here not thinking this was a good use of the money, but this is fantastic. I'm totally enamoured. I'll try to be the first one through the doors."

The heavy construction is done and crews are busy with the finishing work inside and the landscaping outside. It's a world-class facility, which is just what this city needs on the road to greatness.

More importantly, it's what we deserve.


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 B1


Updated on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 11:11 AM CDT: adds video

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