Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
City's Modernist gems hiding in plain sight
THE short strip of Osborne from Broadway to Portage Avenue is not something most Winnipeggers would see as historically invigorating. We have lots of preserved heritage buildings; we know what history looks like.
But others argue that view blinds us to the rare trove of Modernist structures Winnipeg possesses, the stock of buildings designed post-Second World War by a notable group out of the University of Manitoba school, led by J.A. Russell, an American with connections to the European diaspora that included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
"You can actually follow the progression of 20th century architecture (along Osborne) and end up at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which is a fine, fine example of late Modernism. It's got a lot of international attention," says Serena Keshavjee, art history professor at the University of Winnipeg and editor of the celebratory book Winnipeg Modern. She calls the Osborne stretch, altered by renovation (Canadian Red Cross) and demolition (Stevens and Son), North America's longest row of Modernist buildings.
Winnipeg's collection is admired by design and architecture specialists internationally.
The city's Modernist buildings profited from the waves of economic development -- pitted by lengthy troughs -- that contributed to the Exchange District's preservation. Largely intact, this "crucible" of Modernism is receiving long-denied public recognition, to the cautious relief of planners, architects, designers, academics and heritage proponents alike.
Winnipeggers love or hate the WAG, created in 1971 -- said to mimic the bow of a ship on a prairie sea, an arrow head or an iceberg -- by Gustavo da Roza II, but Keshavjee says it's regarded as one of the best museums in North America.
"It's iconic. You show people who come to Winnipeg that building, and it takes their breath away."
The need to protect the buildings has got the nod from the city's draft Heritage Resource Management Plan, part of the reform hitting the gears of heritage recognition and preservation.
The plan, along with proposed amendments to the city's Historical Buildings Bylaw, seeks to prod people to think about heritage recognition in different ways. The bylaw, which now prevents demolition of buildings on the conservation list without council's review, is expected to drop its grade system and adopt notations for protection of a building's specific characteristics.
It would also include a survey of sites, environments and buildings that deserve public recognition -- a plaque at the house where teenaged Neil Young lived or at the Elm Park bridge that connects the BDI drive-in to Kingston Crescent.
And, significantly, it envisions requiring maintenance standards of designated buildings in exchange for public financial assistance -- something advocates have long clamoured for, to prevent the "demolition by neglect" of heritage properties.
Further, the management plan calls, in the short-term, for recognition of the "Modernist precinct" of public buildings on either side of Main Street.
It is unique in Canada, surrounded by late Victorian, early Edwardian warehouse structures and Beaux-Art banks. Those buildings themselves were threatened in the 1960s and early 1970s by development that embraced Modernism, triggering the birth of the city's heritage movement.
The WAG illustrates the evolution of public sympathy for a city's architectural splendour: Few today would argue that the Exchange District is not a gem; fewer rave about the functional utilitarianism of concrete slabs, limestone cladding, and glass and steel curtain walls or the Brutalist geometric massing of, for example, the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Would anyone weep for a condemned Public Safety Building?
And that, argue advocates, is why the collection of Modernist architecture in this city is in grave danger. It is hard to find a baby-boomer champion to lobby for preservation of buildings they grew up with. "You don't like to think of yourself as heritage," says a federal source. But lagging public sentiment aside, even governments can't muster the courage to protect a Modernist icon to Canada's aviation and social development.
The fact that the Winnipeg airport is on the wrecker's block turns those who see it as a cultural institution apoplectic.
"This country eats its own flesh," says Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and heritage preservation advocate. "If it can be used (again), it absolutely should be."
History informs this exercise, Lambert speculates, adding the building likely will come down because development on cleared property boosts revenue to the owner and to the tax base.
Among eight airports opened in the 1960s by federal governments, Winnipeg's was to show Canada off to the jet-age world as an optimistic, modern and growing country. The airports benefited from a groundbreaking policy to spend one half of one per cent of a new building's cost on artwork -- the two wall murals by Eli Borstein and John Graham in the concourse reveal the symbiosis of architecture and art that is Modernism. Designed by David Thordarson and Bernard Brown in Miesian style referred to as "High Modernism," the airport cost $18 million.
Today, only the Winnipeg and Gander airports stay true to the ideal -- the other six are either renovated beyond recognition or have been demolished.
The Winnipeg Airports Authority has decided the old terminal will be brought down. It rejected a bid from the Western Canada Aviation Museum to move in -- a shame, says Arni Thorsteinson, whose Shelter Corp. prepared a multi-use proposal for the old airport. A structural engineering review found the building sound, its issues overstated.
The WAA says that the building constructed on caissons has foundation problems. The basement floor has dropped seven inches in spots.
"The building's structure is very sound. Buildings like Transport Canada's airport buildings were built to last for 200 years," Thorsteinson rebuts. "Why would you spend four to five million dollars to demolish a $20-million building when you have no immediate use for the land?"
WAA's Barry Rempel has said new development there would yield greater economic return for the authority, which has a long-term lease on the Transport Canada building.
Ottawa has ceded the demolition decision to the WAA. Some argue that if not "owned" by the federal government, the airport falls to the city to designate -- thereby protect -- as heritage, but the city says it can't do that because the building sits on federal land. Catch 22. Pass the buck. After you, Alphonse.
The legal loopholes allows the government to skirt its public responsibility.
The Winnipeg airport needs a champion. Named now for James Richardson, maybe it could use some encouragement from that family. Kathleen Richardson, who has a soft spot for heritage, called the airport "splendid" but refused to speak further on its fate.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2011 J5
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