Winter survival and summer languor dictate how to build on the Canadian prairies, reveals Conrad Koslowsky
Long before pickling became one of the DIY leisure pursuits of the hipster class, I can remember helping my grandmother to wash rust from countless jar lids to preserve another year’s abundant backyard harvest. As a Ukrainian wartime immigrant, she understood hunger, and appreciated food in a profound way. Living in Winnipeg, a fairly poor city of relatively recent pioneer origins, her experience as an immigrant is fairly commonplace. Prairie soil is famously fertile, and the hot and humid summers make for productive gardens. However, Manitobans endure long and bitterly cold winters (with temperatures regularly in the -30s Celsius), and so the DIY storing and preserving of food was a matter of survival in the days before the industrialised supermarket. There is something in this waste-averse attitude to food that permeates the material culture of Manitoba.
Winnipeggers spend the winter months in suburban prairie homes dreaming of a summer in densely forested ‘cottage country’. At first glance, the fact that most people in Manitoba own or at least have access to a second house might seem like an incongruent departure from the picture painted above. But the manner in which these cottages are lived is for the most part modest, cheap, and humble.
If Manitoba’s isolation, harsh climate and abundance of unspoilt land gave rise to a cultural habit of stockpiling resources, then the summer house is where local architectural expression finds its true home. Typically self-built, these structures demonstrate resourcefulness at its most playful − cheap building materials are used in unconventional ways, construction waste is recycled from the city, and entire buildings are appropriated, relocated or adapted. As local architect Neil Minuk puts it: ‘… cottage territory is a “Discount Everything” locale … an “Arche Povera” land where homes are constructed from nothing. Timber from railway boxcars is a favorite source of material. Fixtures and fitments are those too outrageous for the proper city home’. But if cottages are a kind of vehicle for the regurgitation of houses from the city, it seems odd that their owners’ hearts often lie with their second house first.
The contrast between suburban house and cottage is as stark as the prairie seasons. The majority of Manitobans aspire to having a new home in the suburbs to call their own, but these buildings are new in the way that a TV dinner is fresh. Entire ‘neighbourhoods’ are constructed with Fordian production-line efficiency and repetition, and the ‘amenities’ surrounding them are the tarmac expanses of petrol stations and ‘box stores’ ubiquitous in the Midwest. The cities sprawl with stucco houses as sterile and bland as the fast food chains that malnourish them.
Cottages, on the other hand, have a material richness that is absent in the city. Less inhibited by market forces and the norms associated with suburban living, cottages are idiosyncratic in nature and more often than not, built through a series of collaged accretions. The informality of these second houses creates an environment for wilful experimentation and a strange ‘otherness’ that counters the banality of the suburban home. While ‘real’ houses in the city frequently change hands, cottages hold enormous sentimental value for their owners, and selling outside of the family is to be avoided at all costs.
Like a home-cooked feast, Manitoban cottages reveal that richness needn’t be extravagant. When cheap or scavenged materials are used to make buildings that have much more élan than their expensive suburban counterparts, we are reminded that architecture is often at its most exuberant when at its most humble.