Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg's new museum a labour of love

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At the end of a two-hour media tour of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a staff member with PCL Constructors Inc. -- the museum's principal contractor -- offered journalists a branded bottle of water.

"It's PCL water," he shouted to journalists, milling about an exhibit hall. "Just one drink and you'll become a believer."

After a smattering of giggles he added: "We drank it 10 years ago and look what happened."

Look indeed. The much maligned, frequently doubted and profoundly misunderstood CMHR is on the precipice of becoming, finally, a going concern.

Officially, the museum won't open until Sept. 20. That did not discourage PCL from offering journalists on Friday a first look at the more or less completed interior.

To be fair, this was not a complete tour; none of the exhibit space was open for viewing and several of the highest vantage points in the Tower of Hope were still under construction. Journalists were, however, able to get a good look at the breathtaking vantage points and nonsensical angles, pitches and elevations that distinguish this building.

Still, why a media tour and why now? Quite simply, PCL wanted to gush about what it had accomplished.

The completion of the gross majority of the public space allowed the contractor to wax poetic about the final product and the process it had undertaken to build what is easily one of the most complex structures of its kind anywhere in the world.

"This was less of a conventional building and more of a sculpture," said Todd Craigen, the PCL executive who was CMHR construction manager for more than five years.

Notwithstanding PCL's enthusiasm, the contractor understands there are still many people in this city, and across Canada, who would like it to be a colossal failure.

Some resent the museum is the legacy project of the late Israel Asper, who got the ball rolling on this project nearly 15 years ago. Some are offended about the cost, one-third of which is coming directly from taxpayers. And still others are offended about the esthetic of the museum itself.

Craigen said he strongly believes a visit inside a completed museum will be an antidote for many naysayers. "I think a lot of people just need to experience this building. They need to really see it in all of its glory and then they'll understand," he said.

Of course, PCL is hardly objective.

The people who design and build great structures have always ended up hopelessly, endlessly in love with the final product. From the engineers to electricians to the concrete mixer drivers and the iron workers who assembled the girders that hold up this improbable building, there are very few people who have laid hands on the CMHR who are ambivalent about it.

Those like Craigen who have high hopes for a higher level of public support once the museum is fully open have the comfort of knowing that despite concern over its final price tag, the CMHR has not lost its 'wow' factor.

When grandiose architectural concepts are mixed with taxpayer cash, there is always a high potential for the final product to lose its wow. The sponsors of these projects -- usually politicians vulnerable to sudden swings in public opinion -- are under relentless pressure to bring down both the cost and the complexity of the design. While many politicians hold firm, it is not unusual for great architectural ideas to die on the altar of 'value engineering.'

That was always a concern with the CMHR. Although opinion is still split about whether the museum should have been built at all, it certainly would have aided critics if the project had been stripped and rendered to the bare bone. Opening as much less than it was designed to be would have been, simply, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although many taxpayers continue to question the wisdom of their efforts, CMHR CEO Stuart Murray and his political allies did not allow the breathtaking elements of the museum to be stripped away. There are missing pieces from Antoine Predock's original design, but not enough that the museum has lost any of its elaborate appeal.

That is, however, only an assessment of the building itself. The content, which no one will see until later summer, will get an entirely separate assessment.

The tour organized by PCL did not provide enough insight to determine whether the CMHR will become the cultural icon, educational institution and a game-changing addition to Winnipeg's skyline its sponsors so desperately want it to be.

It did, however, show clearly there is a lot of love in this building.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The main floor ticket area, restaurant and patio.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A15

History

Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 10:08 AM CST: adds sidebar

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