Gaboury favoured organic, regionalist style
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/11/2022 (212 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Étienne Gaboury died a few weeks ago at the age of 92, Manitoba lost one of its most prominent, most beloved, and arguably its greatest architect.
Over his 50-year career, he was driven by a passionate connection to this place, leaving behind a legacy of buildings that speaks proudly to who we are as a community.
Gaboury defined architecture as “space structured for human needs.” This somewhat pragmatic description doesn’t seem to fit with a man whose architecture was so richly connected to artistic expression, but digging deeper, it reveals greater meaning. He saw the third component of the definition, human needs, as being intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
He believed architecture, like all art, should evoke a personal reaction, and that people should sense there is an inherent message in a structure, connecting to each of us in different ways.
He once said, in a lecture at Laurentian University, that “a building becomes architecture when it is imbued with emotion, intelligence, and symbolism, when matter has attained its highest level of resolution, like when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. As an architect I try to attain the beauty of the butterfly.”
Gaboury graduated from the University of Manitoba, but he spent an influential year of postgraduate study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. During this time, he studied the influential European architects of the mid-century, including Swiss architect Le Corbusier. A pilgrimage to his famous Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp influenced Gaboury throughout his career.
Ronchamp is an Expressionistic structure of thick concrete walls supporting an upturned roof, like a sail billowing on a windy hilltop. Le Corbusier famously composed the building in a masterful play of form, space and light that evokes spiritual and contemplative emotions.
The power of Étienne Gaboury’s architecture, influenced by this visit, would come from his ability to similarly mould light and shadow, teasing it through hidden windows, pulling it along straight lines, or across textured curves.
Gaboury’s early work was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier. His use of heavy concrete and masonry walls with deep-set windows, angular shapes and strong shadow lines can be seen in his fire halls, churches and other public buildings, such as the St. Boniface Civic Centre beside the Hôtel de Ville on Provencher Boulevard.
His architecture would always maintain the clean lines of Modernist design, but it would further evolve into an organic, regionalist style intimately tied to its place.
This architectural sense of place was a natural extension of his own relationship with Manitoba and his love for its unique landscape. He felt his relationship with the environment was embedded into his subconscious through his Métis heritage, reinforced by his upbringing on a Prairie farm that was imbued with this understanding — its layout centred on the patterns of the sun and sheltered from the prevailing winds, the buildings organized to be efficient and functional.
This design sensitivity would culminate in what is often considered his finest work, the dramatic spiral of Église du Précieux Sang in St. Boniface, built in 1968. The church’s snail-shaped plan expresses the dynamic movement of the congregation around the altar, seated in a semicircle. The spiral roof structure intuitively follows this movement and is held aloft by 25 wooden beams, with an asymmetrical connection at the centre.
Its poetic form reveals itself in different ways as one moves around the building, inside and out. Its design is an exploration of how light reveals shape and how shape reveals light, playing masterfully with orientation, openings and texture to create a spiritual connection to the architecture.
Gaboury’s success at Précieux Sang would lead to another prominent commission, the reconstruction of Cathédrale Saint-Boniface after a devastating fire in 1968 that destroyed the spiritual and social heart of the community. His breathtaking solution created one of the most inspiring buildings in the city today.
Instead of trying to rebuild the basilica, his idea was to nestle a smaller, modern church within the stone walls of the ruin. This move created an intimate public courtyard that tells the story of the devastation and evokes a powerful emotion within visitors that is heightened by the juxtaposition of the angular modern structure set within.
Despite many great successes, Gaboury had a unique relationship with his own city. He was beloved by the Franco-Manitoban community, even if his forward-looking architecture was not always aligned with its traditional values. He often lamented, however, that he was not fully embraced on the west — or English — side of the Red River.
As prominent as he was in his hometown, even receiving the commission to design Canada’s embassy in Mexico City, most of his prominent work is concentrated in and around Winnipeg’s historically francophone neighbourhoods.
When he was approached to design the Esplanade Riel, he saw it as an opportunity to re-establish the historic alignment between Broadway and Provencher Boulevard, symbolically re-uniting the two communities.
His final prominent commission would at long last reach across the river and connect the entire city to his work, leaving an architectural legacy that will for generations instil a sense of pride in all Manitobans.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number TEN Architectural Group.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.