Recently in the Free Press, David Witty, Dean of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture, wrote about the importance of good design without specifying what might qualify as “good,” and without stepping on any toes by labeling anything bad.
Dean Witty did come close. He offered vague praises for the Provencher footbridge and the new Millennium Library. Yet he neglected to mention that upon its opening, the 1977 Centennial Library also was praised for its modern design — the original architect certainly thought it good — even though the Millennium project came about only because, by 1999, most Winnipeggers regarded the Centennial Library as unbearably hideous.
In 1965, our new city hall was considered a major aesthetic improvement over the 1886 “gingerbread house” it replaced; today, the Civic Centre’s monolithic modernism comprises some of the city’s most reviled structures, while the old Victorian City Hall remains much-lamented.
“Good design” is relative. Trends do come and go, but most buildings in Winnipeg that are universally accepted as beautiful were constructed before 1920. These designs were based not upon an architect’s egotistical whim or desire for experimentation. Rather, they conformed to the classic forms that manifested themselves in the contemporary styles of the day: Chicagoan, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Edwardian Commercial, Victorian Italianate.
Examples of each can be found in the Exchange District, a national historic site of which Winnipeggers are rightfully proud. But, before being demolished for the sake of modernist experiments or surface-level parking, Exchange District-style buildings were once laid over a much larger area of the city, throughout the downtown and into the inner city along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Logan, Sargent, and Selkirk.
At the time, the demolitions may have seemed convenient, but they permanently transformed the urban environment into something comparatively repellent.
Recent new construction in the inner city has been unsympathetic to historical surroundings. Across from the brick, five-storey, 1909 Casa Loma Building on Portage was recently constructed a number of single-storey, box-style fast food outlets (and, set back a good distance from the sidewalk, a drug store) no different than those found among the subdivided outskirts of North American suburbs and small towns.
Perhaps the middle-class, suburban men and women who comprise the city’s planning department have decided the best course is to suburbanize the urban? Or maybe the problem is there’s no planning at all.
As legendary Winnipeg planner Earl Levin wrote in a 1984 paper titled Beyond the Core Area Initiative: Prospects for Downtown Winnipeg: “Major planning and development decisions affecting the City of Winnipeg are not being made by city council and do not involve in any formal way the city’s planning department.”
Speaking of Levin, it is he we have to thank for the wasteland of surface parking that exists downtown south of Portage and north of Broadway. Up until the late 1960s, the area was residential — tree-lined streets filled with row houses and walk-up apartment buildings; where now sits the Convention Centre once lay a school. Levin had a grandiose vision of a modern, Le Corbusier-inspired, towers-in-the-park sort of downtown, and the first of it was completed in 1972 between Hargrave and Carlton streets between York and St. Mary avenues — Lakeview Square. While the plaza in the centre of it all didn’t turn out to be the hit Levin expected — I find it a solitudinal spot to enjoy a surreptitious beer on a weekday afternoon — those who sit amid its shade might look at their surroundings and think, “That’s a lot of concrete.”
But Levin’s vision, minus the subway he and Bernie Wolfe had hoped for, only compounded the parking problem and left our landscape filled with holes.
If Winnipeg’s Exchange District might be compared to Vancouver’s Gastown, we would do well to do what they have done. New buildings in Gastown have aped the scale and the style of historical surrounding structures, often with a postmodern twist.
Winnipeg should work aggressively to develop empty lots and parking lots into new buildings of the old styles, expanding our Exchange District into the neighbouring neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Centennial, and West Alexander, while demanding that all new development in the inner city be aesthetically rooted in one of the historic forms we all agree to admire.