Winner of the 2019 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Advocate for Architecture Award
Brent Bellamy is an architect, creative director, urbanist and columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press. Among his many notable accomplishments is his recent selection as this year’s winner of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Advocate for Architecture Award. We sat down with Brent to ask him about his approach to design, where he gets inspiration from and what motivates him to publicly share his views on architecture, design and urbanism.
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in architecture?
A: My Dad was a cartoonist and artist, so I grew up with creativity around me in the house and it was always just part of my life. For years we had a full-sized spaceship in the basement because my dad was making Star Wars inspired movies called Small Wars, starring me and my sister. He would work away, call us down to say a few lines and then we would head back upstairs and continue our day. I grew up thinking that was what everybody did. Seeing him draw and be creative was something that inspired me.
When it came time for me to choose what career I would pursue, he kind of steered me away from following in his footsteps with fine arts, because there’s a lot of uncertainty in a profession like that, and he had sort of struggled to get to where he was. It's a difficult road, and I think he influenced me to look for a more stable profession and architecture offered that.
A young Brent Bellamy in his ‘Small Wars’ prop spaceship.
I applied to the Faculty of Architecture out of high school, but after the third day, I quit. I had real self-doubt and it just sort of overwhelmed me. I enrolled in courses for pre-law, with the eventual goal of getting into politics. When I went home and talked to my parents, they convinced me that I needed to go back – that a more creative profession was better suited to me. The next morning, my Dad and I raced back to the university - I clearly remember driving in his little hatchback with cartoon racing stripes on the side. I was within an hour of having my spot in architecture given away, but they took me back and I haven’t looked back since.
Q: You publish a popular monthly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, have a large following on Twitter and regularly appear in media interviews. What motivates you to share your ideas and thoughts on architecture and urban design?
A: I would say the number one thing that motivates me is that I want to be in love with the city I live in. I travel often and I see things in other cities that I fall in love with and then come home and think why can’t my city be like that? That's really what drives me. I get inspired by cities that focus on people - walking in the streets, activity in the storefronts and shops, bikes and pedestrians everywhere. Cities can be so full of life and energy. They can be invigorating. I want that for my city.
I went to school in Denmark and it changed my life. It allowed me to experience a place that is filled with life, vibrancy and social connection - to understand what it takes to achieve that was an influential experience. If we could transport even just a few of those qualities here, it would be transformational to our quality of life. I've decided to stay here and live my life in Winnipeg. So, I want to make it the best city it can be. I want to be in love with Winnipeg.
The streets of Copenhagen were a big influence on Bellamy’s design journey.
Q: What is it about Winnipeg that is special and makes you want to stay here?
A: The thing I love about Winnipeg is its soul. It’s kind of gritty and worn, but I love that. It’s not shiny like Calgary, or on a waterfront like Halifax or set beside the mountains of Vancouver, but it has its own special kind of spirit. I always wished Grunge music was invented in Winnipeg because it kind of feels like who we are. It is not an insult, I know some people will think that. It is something we should embrace. We shouldn't pretend to be a cheaper version of Toronto. We should be what we are; which is a special place – almost exotic in a weird way. Humans shouldn't exist here in winter, but we fight through it, you know? We are so completely isolated - hundreds of kilometers from the next nearest city - but it makes us punch above our weight in many things. We grow slowly and things never seem to change, but that saved our Exchange District. We have pick-up trucks that drive around in the summer shooting poison in the air to kill the bugs – not sure how that can be spun as positive but it’s uniquely Winnipeg.
It's kind of crazy that people live here, but that's what makes us unique and it feels like we're starting to embrace that quirkiness. I think there’s been a change in Winnipeg over the last 10-15 years. I hate when I hear, you know, we have the same (blank) as Toronto or the same whatever as Calgary - because we can't compete with those cities on the things that they're great at. But we are our own thing. We are the coldest city in North America. Let’s embrace what Winnipeg is and make something special out of it. Let’s keep Winnipeg weird.
Left: Winnipeg after a snowfall; Right: The Forks on a winter's day
Q: What are the guiding principles behind your work as an architect?
A: I think the most important word for me as a designer is timelessness. I want the things that I am involved with to stimulate people when they see it and interact with it, but I also strive to create things that will in 50 years be just as interesting – have the same impact. And you know, that’s a difficult thing. They say, the most sustainable building is one that isn’t built, and the ones will be re-used and restored in the future are the ones that are timeless and will appeal to the next generations as much as the current. I love flipping through magazines and seeing the buildings designed for shock value, but after a while I think people look differently at those kinds of buildings. You can only be shocked so often. They sort of mark their time and that’s it. I think it’s more important that a building stands the test of time – like a great piece of furniture that just becomes part of your home and you would never dream of replacing it.
Bellamy (second from right) participating in a panel discussion at the Winnipeg Free Press Café.
Q: You have travelled extensively around the world. What have your travels taught you about architecture and design?
A: I always say if I was mayor my first action would be to give every citizen $1,000 on the condition that they use it to travel and see another city, because I think it redefines how you experience your own. As a designer and as a person, you are a product of your experiences. Seeing how people in other places interact with their city, how they interact with their buildings, where those buildings are located, what they look like, how they function – and seeing how people move and react to those buildings in different contexts – I think gives you a broader base to start with as a designer. And when you come back and can bring some of that understanding to your design, I think it makes you stronger.
Q: What are some of your biggest influences on your work as an architect?
A: I love Scandinavian architecture. I have Scandinavian Heritage and kind of grew up attracted to it. My favorite hockey player growing up was always a Swede – Willy Lindström when I was young and Thomas Steen when I got older. I always cheered for the Swedish Hockey team.
I really feel like they know how to do it over there. There are so many great architects in Scandinavia. Timelessness is really what drives them, and they’ve designed great modern buildings that after several decades still stand out today as spectacular pieces of architecture. And that’s what I try to pursue as a designer. The great 1950’s buildings that came out of Denmark and Sweden and Finland…They still look spectacular today. The way they use materials, proportion and composition is so beautiful. Many of my role models in design are architects from Nordic countries, both from the past and from today.
Odenplan Station, Stockholm
Q: What’s your favorite building in Canada and why?
A: It might sound kind of lame but my favorite Canadian building is the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and it always has been, even before I worked here at Number TEN. I've always loved it. I've traveled the world and I come back and still love that building.
The way it sits in the Exchange District is such a perfect example of how you can design a modern building and have it fit perfectly in an historic context. It has no historic reference whatsoever. It is wholly modern, but it fits beautifully because it has that sort of visual weight to it – it sits perfectly alongside these old warehouse buildings.
And I just love the texture of the concrete, and the spaces and volumes inside are just perfect. It was done in a style called brutalism that’s pretty much universally hated by non-architects, but it stands as an example of how that raw aesthetic could be done in a sensitive way. I love how it becomes a giant poster board during the Fringe Festival. I know it’s often seen as colourless and imposing by many Winnipeggers, but to me it is a perfect building.
A view of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Q: When you are not working, what do you enjoy doing?
A: I’m not really a nature guy. I like cities and travelling. I watch, coach and play hockey so I'd say that's a pretty big part of my recreational life in winter. I play ‘beer league’ hockey and I rarely miss a game because I love connecting with friends that I’ve had for so many years…I just wish I had better hands!
Left: Bellamy’s beer league hockey card; Right: Representing his hometown at a sporting event in Europe.
Q: If you were to give advice to a young person pursuing a career in design, what would you tell them?
A: I mentor quite a few students and I always tell them to take the schooling and take the education even if you don't become an architect. Because the schooling will change how you look at the world forever. You'll travel differently. You'll see your own city differently. It will broaden how you experience your place. And so I always tell them just take the education and then decide from there. I have lots of friends who did different things after getting their degrees, like furniture design, fine arts all kinds of other design disciplines.
For me, I couldn't imagine a more rewarding experience than standing in front of a building and watching people move in and out of it and around and through it and know that that came out of your imagination. It started as an idea in your brain. It’s incredible. These moments tend to be few and far between, but those experiences, when they do happen…I can't imagine any other profession bringing you that kind of reward.
Qualico Family Centre at Assiniboine Park, one of Bellamy's favourite design projects to date.
Q: What does the RAIC Advocate for Architecture award mean to you?
A: It was a surprise for sure and the comments from the jury really hit home. I can’t thank them and the people who nominated me enough. It makes me kind of choke up thinking about it. It really affected me because most of the time when I get reactions from people about my Free Press column, it’s often people getting angry at me. I've written 150 columns, and if you want to know how many opinion pieces it takes to piss off every single person in the city you live in…the answer is 100. The next 50 have been to reinforce their feelings, I think. If you talk enough, eventually everyone will be upset at some point. So I don’t generally get a lot of positive reinforcement, which is natural when you're advocating for things that are little bit different.
The Portage and Main thing was a tough experience. It took a lot out of me. This award is really amazing positive reinforcement from my peers, which I really take to heart. It has in a way re-inflated my sail. It means so much to me, and it always will.
Rendering of one of Bellamy’s current projects at Number TEN: The new Richardson Innovation Centre in Winnipeg.