Imagine a Paris with no Eiffel Tower.
It seems incredible today, but from the moment the French icon began to rise skyward, it faced widespread opposition. The newspaper Le Temps wrote that the tower "threatened French art and history," its radical design destroying the "intact beauty of Paris."
Novelist Guy de Maupassant famously ate lunch every day in the tower's restaurant because, as he put it, "It's the only place in Paris where I don't have to look at it."
This shows that even in great cities like Paris, change is and has always been received with hesitation. Negative reaction to the unfamiliar is human nature no matter where you live.
On a much smaller scale, the provocative design for the new Cube stage in Old Market Square by 5468796 Architecture has opened to similar polarizing debate because of its unexpected form and contrasting relationship with the brick warehouses that surround it.
This public apprehension towards unfamiliar ideas has a long history in Winnipeg as well. Often in time, when the new becomes the old, opposition fades and we celebrate these projects as part of what defines our city.
An early example of this was Assiniboine Park, which today is a vital thread in our city's urban fabric. Yet at the turn of the last century, many of Winnipeg's citizens opposed its cost, size and location.
Following the lead of New York and Montreal, Winnipeg's city council took the visionary step of purchasing 280 acres of land and hiring prominent designer Frederick Todd to create a great park for the rapidly growing city. Remarkably, this courageous decision would become an election issue that contributed to many of the councillors losing their jobs.
More recently, the MTS Centre became a lightning rod for discussion as Winnipeggers feared that its downtown location was inappropriate because of perceived issues with crime and a lack of parking in the city centre. Believing in the importance of a strong urban core, the developers forged ahead against these misconceptions and today it stands as a landmark in our downtown and one of the most successful arenas in North America.
Probably the most vocal public opposition to a project in recent years occurred with the Esplanade Riel bridge at the Forks. Journalists, politicians and the public alike criticized it and its "$1-million toilet" as an extravagant waste of money. A committed city council supported the design in the face of this opposition and today it stands as a beloved source of civic pride, featured on postcards and billboards as a symbol of "modern" Winnipeg.
Time will tell if the Cube stage will follow these examples and become a treasured Winnipeg landmark, but the people responsible for its dramatic design have boldly chosen to embrace the public debate. The dialogue is seen an important part of what can make modern architecture inspiring.
The stage it replaced was an unassuming and comfortable structure. In our conservative prairie city, "comfortable" architecture has been something we have done very well for a very long time. It's clear, however, that "comfortable" doesn't inspire the imagination of our young people who dream of moving west. It doesn't make our city youthful, vibrant and engaging, a place that tourists want to visit and businesses want to relocate to. Comfortable does not encourage people to believe that their city can compete with any other.
Recently, a momentum for change has been building in Winnipeg. In a city that has for too long celebrated inexpensive housing as its primary attraction, a more optimistic attitude is taking hold and along with it a greater acceptance of provocative design that will contribute to a rich and varied urban experience.
The new stage will soon be joined in the downtown by the iceberg-like Buhler Centre clad in white reflectors, a 60-metre long glass periodic table on the U of W's new science building facade, dramatic balconies cantilevered over the sidewalk at a renovated Avenue Building and a giant box appearing to have been dropped from outer space at the Children's Museum. The 30-storey mountain of steel and glass rising at The Forks will also be anything but comfortable.
New projects like The Cube are evidence that Winnipeg might be overcoming its deep-seated apprehension to change and is beginning to embrace unique and daring architectural ideas.
The risk will be that some will love them and others will hate them.
The reward will be that they will stimulate discussion and galvanize opinion.
In the end we will all reap the benefits of a more confident and interesting city.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at Bbellamy@numberten.com.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2010 B4