The Stone Snake

Louis Bakó has been a presence in the Winnipeg art scene for 50 years. His family emigrated to Winnipeg in 1957, fleeing the revolution in Hungary. As a child, he had been interested in art and that dedication continued into his adult life. He studied fine arts at the University of Manitoba and theatre design at the National Theatre School in Montreal before joining Winnipeg’s Urban Design and City Planning department, where he remained for 25 years. One of his principal interests while working there was in public art projects which involved the physical environment. Now, 17 years after his retirement, he has returned to the relationship between urban space and community access that was his professional focus. He is in the final stages of completing the Annabella Street Recreational Platform and Boat Launch, a project that has moved 400 tons of quarried limestone to a site at the end of one of the city’s most colourful streets (Annabella was the centre of the city’s Red Light District). The elegant platform that Bakó conceived and designed is situated at the widest section of the river, and the view across the river to the other side is impressive.

Louis Bakó, 300 Tons of Stone Rearranged, Manitoba limestone, 2016. All photos courtesy Louis Bakó.

South Point Douglas is an area of the city to which Bakó is passionately committed; he has lived there and kept a studio on the street for 25 years. He used his knowledge of and connections to the planning department to bend enough of the rules to keep the Platform project on track. It involved three years of work from beginning to end and cost only $64,000. The project was more complicated than it looks; working from the river edge up towards the street meant building a foundation of stone-filled gabions before moving in the huge limestone slabs. Bakó and the engineering firm he hired incorporated four large concrete piles that were left over from an abandoned hydro project; two are below the surface and two function like tabletops or seats for anyone who comes to the site.

His retrieval project makes accessible an important location on the Red River. He has used urban thinking to create a natural place. There are simple pleasures to be gained. You can launch a small boat, fish from the banks, watch a family of ducks swim by or observe the spectacular buildup of cumulus clouds above the city skyline.

Bakó hopes the Annabella Street project will be the first of many access points to the Red. “We have nothing on this beautiful river. We could have one of these every one and a half kilometres on both sides,” and you can hear the frustration in his voice. “Instead of opening up the river, it is being totally neglected.” He regards the configuration of the platform in a very specific way. “It is almost like a serpent,” he says. “I see the slab steps at the bottom as the neck and head; the plaza is the main body; and then the tail curls back at the top, the location of the tallest tree in the city.” Louis Bakó’s serpent is an emblem of the city’s failure to imaginatively address the question of river development. It is an Ouroboros, a snake that is in danger of swallowing the tale of its own inaction. ❚

Ducks swimming in the Red River.