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Build It and They Will Come

Published: 03/23/2012

Most famous wave is evidenced by the turn-of-the-century buildings in the Exchange District. New visitors to this area are awed by the Chicago-style architecture, with their large picture windows and ornamental cornice detailing. The hundreds of buildings in the 20-block long Exchange are the greatest intact collection of the style, and they're a reason Winnipeg was called the Chicago of the North.

Like the fate of much 19th and early 20th century architects around North America these buildings might have been knocked down, but as Winnipeg's business district shifted away from that area, they were merely shuttered and left to decay. But at least they were still there, waiting to be restored. Today the banks, warehouses, and office buildings have been reincarnated into shops, restaurants, galleries, clubs and condos. You can take themed walking tours of the area with guides who give a good mix of historic lowdown and yesteryear gossip.

Winnipeg's second wave of great architecture came during the mid-century. In 1948, the University of Manitoba became the first school in Canada to offer an Interior Design B.A. That brought disciples of modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius to the faculty, who along with John A Russell, the Dean of Architecture, gave Winnipeg some of the best Modernist design adapted to prairie geography and its strong sunlight. Fine examples of public buildings from this modernist era include the Winnipeg Art Gallery and City Hall.

Now Winnipeg is entering its third chapter of architecture, perhaps less cohesive, but no less exciting. But don't just take our word for it.

The new Manitoba Hydro Place and Red River College's Roblin Centre Campus have both won prestigious international awards for innovative green design. But they're not just brainy, they're gorgeous too. The Manitoba Hydro Place is particularly beautiful inside with a grand streamlined wood staircase against massive windows letting in Winnipeg sunshine. Red River's architecture is a perfect example of the seamless weaving of heritage and modern. Heritage buildings have been retrofitted to be ultra-modern inside while preserving their original facade. They are linked by a dramatic glass atrium to a modernist addition. Tours can be booked of Manitoba Hydro Place and the Roblin Centre Campus. Both will change your way of looking at Winnipeg, literally and figuratively.

The Cube, a performance stage enclosed by metal mesh in a small park called Old Market Square in the Exchange District, is another exciting piece of new design. Opened in 2010 to controversy, as are most cutting-edge buildings, the Cube offers noon-hour concerts in summer months. The Winnipeg Folk Festival, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Jazz Winnipeg Festival, Folklorama, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the WSO's Indigenous Music Festival all love to perform here in this urban outdoor space. With interactive changing coloured lights at night, it is a stunning piece of art against the heritage buildings it shares the neighbourhood with.

Downtown Winnipeg got another environmentally friendly Silver LEED building in 2011, at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial as a result of a partnership between Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art (known worldwide for its boundary-pushing art) and the University of Winnipeg. They share the space inside the Buhler Building where eye-catching tabs mounted on the exterior of the building assume different colors at different times of the day.

A landmark in waiting is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, slated to open in 2014 at the historic Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine River converge. In the meantime visitors can go on hard hat site tours of the postmodern museum designed by international architect Antoine Predock. Visits start with a descent into the earth - "the roots" of the museum - and end in the Tower of Hope, a tall spire protruding from the structure that provides visitors with amazing views of downtown Winnipeg.

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TRAVEL MANITOBA

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