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In Conversation with Leslie Stechesen, designer behind Winnipeg's PSB

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/3/2016 (521 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A veteran architect and designer of more than 100 buildings, Leslie Stechesen has truly left his mark on the city of Winnipeg.

The home of Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the expansion to the Pantages Playhouse Theatre and St. John Brebeuf Church are just a few buildings he has worked on over the years, but there’s one structure he helped design in his mid-20s that’s been all the talk lately, and he’s hoping it lives longer than he does.

Winnipeg Tribune Fonds University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections</p><p>A photograph of Winnipeg architect Leslie Stechesen. Stechesen has left his mark on more than 100 buildings in the city. </p></p></p></p></p><p>This black-and-white photograph, taken by Gregg Burner on 28 November 1972, depicts Stechesen holding a drawing of his design for the Leaf Rapids Town Centre.</p><p>28 November 1972</p>

Winnipeg Tribune Fonds University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

A photograph of Winnipeg architect Leslie Stechesen. Stechesen has left his mark on more than 100 buildings in the city.

This black-and-white photograph, taken by Gregg Burner on 28 November 1972, depicts Stechesen holding a drawing of his design for the Leaf Rapids Town Centre.

28 November 1972

Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections</p><p>The Public Safety Building, which opened in 1966, featured a Brutalist design. The fortress-like appearance was directly related to the building’s function as a jail and police headquaters.</p></p></p></p>

Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

The Public Safety Building, which opened in 1966, featured a Brutalist design. The fortress-like appearance was directly related to the building’s function as a jail and police headquaters.

Stechesen was part of the architectural firm that designed the Public Safety Building in the 1960s. The building opened in 1966. Now in his 70s, Stechesen remains proud of his work and doesn’t want to see what he calls the "feather in his cap" be torn down.

Stechesen sat down with the Free Press to talk about this history and potential fate of the building Winnipeggers call the PSB.

Free Press: What do you remember about designing the PSB?

Leslie Stechesen: First of all, I was working for a firm at the time called Libling Michener (& Associates) — it was a feather in our cap to get that job and it was really exciting. It’s an important structure downtown. At that time, there was a style of civic architecture that kind of evolved out of a competition in Philadelphia called the brutalist style. This building made a statement. The style... it was a very sculptural style that had a lot of shadows to it. It was somewhat monumental. Our work was in that vein. A lot of work went into it, it was a very detailed building.

We were worried about the cost of it, and so this engineer we had working for us figured that he could glue the Tyndall limestone to the concrete behind it. What they didn’t take into account at the time was the difference in the expansion of the two materials. Over time, with water getting in there, it started to separate, and that’s why there’s a big problem with it now.

It was a style that we were experimenting in at the time. It was the style that was evolving at the time. Part of it was modernist and then there was this — a concrete type of architecture instead of, say, a glass style of architecture. And we’re getting back into this style now.

FP: In 2006, covered walkways around the building were erected to shelter pedestrians from the potential of falling stone. Is there a way to fix that issue?

LS: It’s the facade. The building isn’t crumbling on the inside. There’s a couple of approaches you could take to it. One is you could discard the outside appearance and remove it and put in a more contemporary face on it. But that’s one of the more significant things about the building — the facade. It adds to the historic value of it.

That’s mainly the facade. It was a well-built building. There was nothing unusual about the inside, it was very solid. I can’t imagine the inside would be condemned.

FP: Do you feel the PSB has its place in downtown Winnipeg as a historical landmark?

LS: It’s kind of strange to think of your stuff as historic, but I guess that’s how it has evolved. A lot of people don’t like the building because it is somewhat brutal in its form. But on the other hand, a lot of people think it is an important example of that style in Canada. It’s a difficult thing.

FP: When people talk about tearing down a building you have designed, what are your thoughts on it.

LS: It’s very disturbing. It was one of the most significant buildings I worked on and to potentially see it go down in my lifetime is very alarming and not that common for a building of that stature. It’s not a good feeling.

FP: Recently, a poll on the Free Press website suggested that 80 per cent of people think the PSB should be torn down. What do you want to say to those people?

LS: You have to like it, you have to appreciate it — if you don’t appreciate it you’re not going to fight for it. It’s an expensive exercise, and it’s almost selfish on my part to want to maintain it. But if you want to preserve the heritage, there’s ways to make it work. If you approach it with a negative viewpoint, that it’s no good to start out with, then you won’t find an answer. But if you start out with saying it’s worth saving, you’ll find an answer. You have to come up with a positive attitude of approaching it and analyzing, and you may come up with some inventive solutions to preserving it.

scott.billeck@freepress.mb.ca

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