In 2008 when Winnipeg architect Peter Hargraves first approached the CEO of The Forks Partnership with the idea of setting warming huts along the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, all he was looking for was permission to use the river trail site. He hadn’t thought of asking for money. His idea turned out to be contagious. Within the first week he had been offered $40,000 and architects from outside the province asked to join him and his colleagues as participants in the project. “It felt like finding a beach ball at the top of a hill,” Hargraves says. “All we did was tap the ball and for the next 10 years we’ve just stayed out of the way and protected it from popping on the way down.” The annual budget for the Warming Huts Project has grown to $150,000 and over 11 years there have been 1,500 submissions from around the world, including 187 this year from 32 countries.
The 2020 winners came from Tokyo, Paris and Calgary, and they represent a range of different approaches and processes. Noël Picaper is the founder of Onomiau (the office for Nomadic Architecture) in Paris and Strasbourg. He and his colleagues designed Droombok, a trio of fantastic nomadic creatures who, they imagine, live along the banks of the river. They embody the sense of storytelling that is at the centre of Picaper’s practice; the name itself comes from South Africa and means something like “dreamgoat.” The creatures are constructed from wood shingles, stand on white steel pedestals and look, perhaps, like an armadillo. Picaper kept climate and place in mind throughout the design process; the rough exterior of the creatures corresponds to the harsh Canadian winter and the interior spray foam parallels the snowy landscape. Droombok occupies two temporal frameworks; it taps into a sense of primitive nostalgia at the same time that it plays inside a pop cultural aesthetic.
The Forest Village from Japan also touches on an earlier time that has been influenced by contemporary society. Architects Masato Ashida and Adrian Steckeweh modelled their various huts and objects on miniature Japanese refrigerators, which they scaled up to form inhabitable architectural spaces. They intended to make their village from straw, but when they arrived in Winnipeg and discovered how available cattails were, they shifted their choice of material. The cattails, from which the village is constructed, were woven together by a cattail binder designed by an inventive technician at The Forks. These huts are elegantly simple and fit the landscape as if they had always been there.
Anthony Schmidt from Modern Office in Calgary designed S[HOVEL], a shimmering tower constructed from 214 aluminum shovels with teal blue handles “that were sympathetic to the notion of cold and winter and ice.” The challenge in S[HOVEL] was “to make use of a ubiquitous and off-the-shelf kind of object,” and Schmidt succeeded in that regard. The standard snow shovels are equal parts function and art; they are a prairie version of a Duchampian ready-made and they are ready to be put to work. The firm engages what Schmidt calls “circular design and design for disassembly,” so the tower uses standardized ring-lock scaffolding components to hold the shovels together. “Our focus was to design something that could be disassembled, recycled or upcycled,” he says. After the tower comes down, the shovels, which were donated by Canadian Tire, will be given to the Snow Angels, a volunteer organization that helps the old and disabled with snow removal.
Among the most interesting projects was Cloud of Unintended Consequences, a collaboration between the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba and Winnipeg artist Eleanor Bond. The collaboration was led by architect, artist and professor Eduardo Aquino and 40 architecture students who spent two intense weeks designing and making the 600-pound cloud out of rebar and plastic. The indoor sculpture is a floating variation on an earlier Bond work, called Dark Cloud of Indecision, from 2010. The students projected and traced an image of that piece and made a three-dimensional, scaled-up paper version. The finished work is 23 feet long and is, in Bond’s words, “a material exploration. Using recycled material offered an opportunity for anything to be constructed.” The surface of the cloud is animated by enchanting colour accents and has a hollowed-out, shaped interior. “I wanted it to be somewhat immersive and not just an object to look at,” Bond says. The result is an interior space that is part Schwitters’s Merzbau and part Kiesler’s Endless House. “When you place your head inside it,” Aquino says, “there is a sense of otherness, of another place, of a place away from The Forks.”
Hargraves and the juries have never played a curatorial role in enforcing a specific theme on the competition. All they have outlined is the location and the project’s general purpose. But the winners of the 2020 competition seemed to gravitate towards an environmental awareness. Hargraves says, “Two of the winning projects are very analogue—hand-constructed and almost hand-sketched from the design perspective. The Forest Village used basket-weaving, which is knowledge and expertise that has been passed down over thousands of years, and then the S[HOVEL] project with its finite scale models was extremely digital. What was fascinating was that while both projects had renewable or reusable elements, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum for how we think about those issues. Together they made a perfect statement about the possibilities of moving forward and both resulted in beautiful solutions.” ❚