Rubik’s cube ingenuity applied with a resourceful verve for building housing modestly, but with elegance, in this winner of the ar+d Awards for Emerging Architecture, Photograpy by James Brittain
The question of affordable housing lurks, the recurring bad dream of contemporary architecture. The difficulty of building dwellings simply and well imparts a night terror to many of us, and we are unable to deny its sepulchral truths in the days that follow. The Art Nouveau era—much like the similarly sinuous boom of the last decade—were times of splendidly urbane apartment blocks, or villas in city or countryside brimming with lush ornamentation and restless surfaces.
But at the end of the First World War, the profession turned as one (in Continental Europe, at least, where destruction was most concentrated) to the problem of affordable housing. Whether the German debate about existenzminimum, Le Corbusier’s speculations about the house as a “a machine for living,” to the prototypes, both good and bad, tested at Stuttgart’s 1927 Wiesenhofsiedlung, new housing forms to repair a blasted Europe were the heart of the Modern project.
Half a decade into this global recession, there is scant evidence of the profession rising from its fluffy bed of Aestheticism Nouveau to again confront the creation of mass housing that people can actually afford. In Canada, au contraire bien-sur: Frank Gehry recent presentation of a staggeringly dense cluster of three calypso-ing condo towers for Toronto’s Mirvish family; a Foster’s team under Nigel Dance opening Vancouver’s muddled Jameson Tower (amazingly, the mega-firm’s first constructed high rise apartment building); and in the same city, BIG from Copenhagen’s recent design for a luxury tower so twisted - as it rotates up through its 49 storeys - that local wags have started calling the firm’s principal partner “Torque Ingles.”
Then there is Winnipeg. Flat, boxy, constant, prairie-values Winnipeg, the railway hub born in the hopes it would become the next Chicago, but ended up as Dubuque with more snow. It is no accident that humble, isolated Winnipeg has created Canada’s most exciting new architectural firm in a decade, one dedicated to applying design innovation to the humblest of tasks, a plains-born, good-humoured, resolutely resourceful verve for building housing modestly, but with elegance.
This is all in evidence in Block 10, one of the more accomplished works to date from the telephone-numbered young firm of 5468796 (don’t bother dialing—their number has been changed!) To their credit, 5468796 is dedicated to changing the number on the sometimes profound, sometimes fey line of precious wood-and-concrete pavilions and villas in natural settings that has defined Canadian architecture for a generation, notably through the designs of Toronto’s Shim + Sutcliffe, Quebec’s Pierre Thibault, and fellow native Winnipeggers, John and Patricia Patkau.
A three storey timber frame apartment block on the most ordinary corner in an inner suburb, Block 10 could hardly be more different than the artful, occasionally arty creations of this older generation. Grant Avenue is a City Beautiful boulevard with mature trees set along its median, but lined with “walk-ups” and small strip malls filled with gyms, candy stores and a full menu of Asian restaurants: Thai, Chinese, Pilipino and Vietnamese (mid-continental Winnipeg has been transformed by waves of industrious immigrants from that continent.) The walk-up apartment is the degree zero of affordable apartment construction in Canada—three storeys in wood frame, dank lobby, small windows, and doubly-loaded corridors that always, always smell of boiled cabbage (one third of Winnipeg’s population is of Eastern European origin.)
Building permission had been granted for a walk-up on this former petroleum station site, and when the small developer Green Seed picked up the property, 5468796 were bound by the site setback, height and other conditions of the approval at hand. According to 5468796 partner Colin Neufeld: “Somehow we convinced the City [of Winnipeg] that our project was in conformance with these plans and renderings, but that remains a bit of a mystery.”
That mystery is no mystery, as the internal layout of this simple box building is complex—smelly corridors entirely eliminated by giving each unit a three storey internal stair, yielding apartments with rooms on at least two, sometimes three different elevations. The designers jettisoned the banalities of the doubly-loaded apartment building layout, and were inspired instead by that twistingly puzzling creation of Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. Indeed, Neufeld’s partner Sasa Radulovic carries a colour-coded Block 10 maquette in Lego blocks around in his car to explain, when on site visits, how their units turn and rotate, floor by floor.
When examined in plan, things are a great deal simpler; in mid-building where the corridor would sit in most walk-up apartments there are, instead, a string of five pairs of scissor stairs, one for each structural bay. With no building lobby, each of the ten units is entered from their own private door on the street or rear lane, these main floor rooms used variously as kitchens, work rooms, or even bedrooms (the building has condominium ownership, and initial residents got raw space with plumbing available throughout, so each could ascribe uses to the rooms as they wished.) The main structure is five bays at 18 feet wide each, the standard width of a Winnipeg townhouse, meaning off-the-shelf wood joists could be used, cutting costs.
The ingenious, Rubik-like innovation by 5468796 is that at the second floor landing, one enters into rooms occupying the adjacent bay, and ditto for the third, or in some cases, returning back to the first bay. At either ends of the building there are extra-wide rooms to fill out the available planning approval envelope. Spatial imagination has thus invigorated the most banal of building types, and sorry, you over-exposed solar collector and glass tower people, there is no greener way to build in Canada than medium density apartment buildings constructed from those most renewable of building materials, two-by-four timber studs, plywood sheeting, and wood joists. These also make for the lowest cost housing construction available.
‘Spatial imagination has thus invigorated the most banal of building types; sorry, you over-exposed solar collector and glass tower people’
This displacement and turning of units as they rise through three stories imparts variegation to window shapes and patterns. The visual force and impact of an extremely modest building is amplified by setting an exo-skeleton of black-stained vertical wood studs out a half foot and more from the well-insulated walls. These add a degree of privacy in front of bathroom and bedroom windows, but are cut away to provide un-impeded light and view for the huge picture windows in living and work rooms.
When viewed obliquely by the heavy traffic along Grant Avenue, the studs visually congeal to form a banded but continuous form, a tall dark stranger newly arrived on this Western Main Street. The three storey stairs provide a sense of space and visual intrigue for a string of smallish rooms that would seem cramped if wedged into standard townhouse or corridor configurations. High tech flare in low tech construction is provided by having exposed heating pipes run up the soffit of these stairs, another huge cost-saver.
What is most exciting about 5468796’s work is that it is part of a wider Winnipeg scene dedicated to shaping graceful buildings at ultra-low cost, a necessity in a province much poorer than its resources-rich neighbours to the west. Notable amongst these is a downtown art gallery and university offices complex given the Archigram-specific name of “Plug-In.”
The Plug-In Gallery was designed by Neil Minuk and David Penner, who were design professors at the University of Manitoba when 5468796 principals Neufeld, Radulovic and Johanna Hurme were all students there. Radulovic and Hurme also collaborated with U. of M. professor Jae-Sung Chon on “Migrating Landscapes,” Canada’s pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture.
Like the United States’ steam-punk pull-down image-bits of earnest urban design initiatives, and the concatenation of things that was the United Kingdom’s Venice collection, “Migrating Landscapes” traded singular curatorial authorship for collective, social media-like group-mind, and it is the weakest of a weak trio in execution.
Designs inspired vaguely by immigrant experience arrayed here are more interesting as a website than as installed in Canada’s daffy pavilion. I, for one, would have much preferred a considered exhibition of 5468796’s wonderful Winnipeg buildings than these competition-generated, student-level models coupled with drawings/stories on iPads, all awkwardly set on a sea of cedar blocks.
Ironic for an exhibition dedicated to the immigrant experience (Radulovic, Hurme and Chon are born outside Canada, a nation of immigrants), the sea of cedar blocks poured out the doors of Canada’s pavilion and out towards the adjacent German pavilion, resulting in a Cold War that had to be intermediated by Biennale officials. I hope 5468796 get invited back in a decade or two, to show their own work, as in their playful hands, authored architecture can be so much more interesting than earnest social process.