It wasn’t that long ago that only the self-assured contrarian could be heard defending the architectural virtues of the brutalist design of Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building. Today, however, with the 50-year-old building almost certainly destined for demolition, a professed love for its dour facade is practically de rigueur among Canada’s cultured classes.

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This article was published 17/3/2016 (2043 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It wasn’t that long ago that only the self-assured contrarian could be heard defending the architectural virtues of the brutalist design of Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building. Today, however, with the 50-year-old building almost certainly destined for demolition, a professed love for its dour facade is practically de rigueur among Canada’s cultured classes.

Clad in Tyndall stone, the Public Safety Building is a uniquely Manitoban expression of the brutalist style of modernist architecture, and makes it seem less cold than concrete contemporaries such as the nearby Manitoba Theatre Centre.

But it was this experimental use of stone in a new architectural fad that now makes the Public Safety Building, with great irony, quite unsafe to the public. While all buildings fall apart without regular maintenance and periodic upgrades, the PSB has required overhead coverings around its perimeter for a decade, to protect pedestrians from falling bits of stone. The adjacent concrete parkade has been closed for safety reasons since 2012.

Retrofitting the PSB so it is accessible and able to accommodate a mix of uses would be prohibitive. Ensuring it is safe would mean scaling back the dramatically projected mullions and fins that give the building its distinction.

Not only failing in its function as a building, the entire block, which includes the Civic Centre Parkade and a couple of quasi-public plazas, fails at contributing to the neighbourhood around it. Together, the buildings remain an insular fortress from the city carrying on around it, built with all the warmth and urbanity of an air conditioning unit. As a consequence, the two plazas are perpetually abandoned.

Modernist buildings can fit into urban environments quite well. The designs of some of the office buildings on Broadway are what allows the boulevard to be a popular, daytime destination, while the brutalist-inspired Radisson Hotel at Portage and Smith does more to adhere to the traditional form of Portage Avenue than the softer post-modern highrises that came later.

Yet so much of modernist architecture fails to lend itself to the local urban context because it was built as part of urban renewal projects that had no regard for context. Responding to a need to reinvest in cities after years of depression and war, urban renewal was wholly embraced in North America from 1945 until about 1975. Rather than build within the existing urban fabric, urban renewal demanded it be cleared away so that new buildings could stand in stark exhibitionism among sweeping streets and plazas.

This is why the civic and cultural centre development of the 1960s, which included the PSB, city hall, the Manitoba Museum and the Centennial Concert Hall, obliterated six blocks with dozens of buildings and made them into three blocks with only a few buildings.

None of the buildings demolished to make way for the PSB and Civic Centre parkade was particularly remarkable on its own. But together they helped make up a dense, mixed-use neighbourhood centred on a public market that for decades served as ground zero for radical demonstrations and soap-box oration.

Left alone by the wrecking ball, it is easy to imagine this neighbourhood today being gradually refurbished and housing the kinds of cafes and tech sector offices seen cropping up in the adjacent West Exchange District.

Philosophically opposed to the complexity of cities, the great conceit of urban renewal was its utopian comprehensiveness. There was no need to consider changes over time; only a finished product built on a clean site. This is why demolition of the PSB and Civic Centre parkade is not only the most realistic option, but the right one to take. Preserving the site as part of a static mid-’60s urban renewal precinct would ensure it remains a vacuous gulf.

The site of the market square, which was gifted to the city in the 1870s under the caveat it be used for public purposes, is only the southern-most third of the total site. The northern portion can be subdivided and sold for dense private development. Market Street should be reopened between King and Princess, and a more humane scale can return to the neighbourhood.

The new buildings do not need to replicate traditional architectural styles, but they should be informed by traditions of how buildings can remain standing as meaningful parts of the urban environment.

Robert Galston is a master’s candidate in the city planning department at the University of Manitoba.

Twitter:@robgalston