By Brent Bellamy, Creative Director and Architect

 WAGs neighbor

The powerful forms of Inuit art, a dancing soapstone bear, a majestic ivory narwhal or an etching of a snowy owl, shape the symbolic imagery of Canada's northern indigenous people. The distinctive works that have come to represent this ancient culture are, surprisingly, a modern form of artistic expression.

The idea of establishing a self-sufficient handicrafts industry across the Arctic was promoted in the early 1950s by the federal government as a means of providing economic opportunity in northern communities.

As the program grew, a rich artistic movement began to flourish, driven by a provocative esthetic imbued with 1,000 years of custom and ritual. Lives spent observing the form and movement of Arctic animals and understanding the intimate nuances of an overpowering landscape provided a depth and gravity to the artistic expression. Rich storytelling traditions combined with a craftsmanship refined through generations of constructing delicate kayak frames and carving intricate objects such as snow knives and harpoons, translated into skill and imagination that made artistic carving a natural extension of Inuit culture and tradition.

Former Winnipeg Art Gallery director Ferdinand Eckhardt was an early proponent of the movement, making the WAG one of the nation's first galleries to display the new art form in 1953. In 1964, he organized Canada's first significant exhibition of Inuit sculpture, the beginning of a relationship that would establish the gallery as a global leader in the study and presentation of Inuit artwork. With over 13,000 pieces, the WAG is today home to the largest and most important public collection of Inuit art in the world.

As part of its centennial celebration in 2012, the Winnipeg Art Gallery began to pursue the development of a National Inuit Art Centre as a permanent home for the celebrated collection and a place of research and education that would strengthen the relationship of the gallery and the city of Winnipeg with Canada's indigenous people.

In August of that year, the WAG initiated its search for a project designer by issuing an expression of interest that attracted responses from 65 architectural firms in 15 different countries. A committee was formed to review the proposals and after narrowing the field to six teams, Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, supported by Cibinel Architects of Winnipeg, was unanimously selected to design the prestigious new centre.

The challenge facing the design team would be to create an inspired expression of a remote culture that is also at home in the context of downtown Winnipeg, connected to an iconic building with a strong predefined character. As part of the early design stages, the team travelled through the North visiting artists in their communities and establishing an understanding of the people, land and culture that is the genesis of the art itself.

The form of the new building would grow out of the profound experience of this travel. The team began exploring ways to create an architecture that evokes the same emotional response felt when immersed in the unique conditions of the Arctic. Maltzan found inspiration in the contrast between the intimacy of Inuit art set against the overwhelming vastness of the northern environment.

With a scale that is unprecedented in North America for a single room dedicated to an indigenous culture, the new Central Gallery will draw on this duality to create an experiential connection between the art and its Arctic origins. The room is imagined as a single, cavernous volume that creates a seemingly boundless environment, sitting in dramatic tension with the intricate and diminutive artwork suspended within it.

A series of domed skylights will bring natural sunlight into the gallery, suffused across the ceiling plane to recreate the flat Arctic light that blends horizon into sky and back into snow-covered ground on an endless Arctic tundra. The flat light and monochromatic colour scheme will allow the edges of the room to disappear, creating the experience of feeling alone with the artwork in a room of infinite space.

The designers are exploring the use of varying levels of transparency to define different spaces throughout the building and create a visual interconnection between studios, theatres and galleries that evokes the imagery of the long, layered vistas in the northern landscape. Mimicking the team's experience of travelling across the North, a visitor's journey through the centre will be without a singular overpowering moment. Instead, a layering of experiences, inside and out, through the old building and new, will come together to form an understanding of the art, the people who make it and the place it comes from.

The exterior of the new building will mirror the height and monolithic expression of its wedge-shaped neighbour, creating a new civic face on the south end of the site. The expression of the Inuit Art Centre breaks away from the rigidity of the existing building through the introduction of rounded corners and gentle vertical folds in the exterior skin, that reference the natural wind-carved formations of Arctic snow. It will appear at times as an extension of the existing building's raw stone facades and from other vantage points it will stand alone as a partner, but second distinct shape, on the site. The designers are searching for a metallic building skin that shimmers in the sunlight, like the wind-polished surface of a frozen inlet or the ice crystals that form the crisp outer shell of tundra snow.

The new gallery will open itself to the city, reinforcing an urban connection to its surroundings. Like a curtain pulled up from the ground, its sinuous form will lift to reveal a narrow slot of glass along the sidewalk, exposing a new entry hall filled with thousands of artifacts not on formal display, being held in transparent vaults centred in the space.

The Inuit Art Centre is currently nearing the end of its design phase and it is hoped construction can begin next year. The concepts put forward so far paint an enticing image of a gallery experience that will redefine the WAG and enhance its role as a cultural leader and advocate for Inuit art.

As Winnipeg celebrates the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights later this year, the possibility of bookending downtown with two world-class cultural learning institutions is an alluring prospect. Both projects will transform Winnipeg into a classroom for the world, where art and learning come together to promote important dialogue, inspire an exchange of ideas and enhance our cross-cultural understanding.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2014 B4