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Winnipeg's Forks huts provide shelter and inspiration

Name the city where seven new architecture studios started up in the last year. Where the underside of a parking garage is being converted into a student centre. Where warming huts by competition-winning designers are rising like flares of creativity along a frozen river.

If New York or Copenhagen come first to mind, that's all right. We all know that sophisticated metropolises are magnets for cool, unpredictable movement in design. But, these days, Winnipeg can also be counted as an incubator of edgy architecture.

In a city where winter takes your breath away with the cold, where summer delivers clouds of mosquitoes, where I, at age 4, froze my tongue to the posts of a hockey net, fierce gestures of design can make you feel lighter during the darkest, shortest days. Maybe, when it's minus 30 degrees outside, they can even help to save your soul.

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Look first to the city's powerful waterways. For a second year now, there is a series of innovative, energizing designs for warming huts out there along the frozen flats at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers converge. The spirited huts, constructed for about $12,000 a piece, in part by the Forks Corporation, provide unconventional shelter for skaters, and warm the hands as well as the mind.

A competition-winning firm from Israel has interpreted its hut as an enclosed metal-frame wall to hold stacks of wood and act as a wind barrier. As the winter grows old, those logs are burned in a fire within the hut's mini courtyard.

Nearby, six wooden "jellyfish" by Vancouver-based Patkau Architects rise up out of the snow like abstract teepees.

Farther along, a red metal frame supports a white nestling cocoon designed by Prof. Lancelot Coar and University of Manitoba architecture students.

Last winter, a bright orange ball, 18 metres in diameter, named The Sunspot,hung from the underside of the Forks' rail bridge. That hut, a collaboration between Winnipeg's 5468796 Architecture - the name refers to the incorporated number of the studio - and artist Ewa Tarsia, hung three feet above the frozen river, its skin constructed of mesh and sprayed with ice and coloured water. Skaters could poke their heads through The Sunspot's opening and crawl inside its orange belly.

Now, that's a heart-warming experience. All the more so because the CEO of the Forks, Paul Jordan, immediately understood the idea of designed warming huts, and extended his support the moment three architects, including Peter Hargraves and the founders of 5468796, Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme, walked into his office fresh off the ice two years ago.

What intrigues me about 5468796 is the way the studio negotiates effortlessly between art, environmentalism, furniture design and civic engagement. Their condominium conversion of a derelict historic warehouse on Portage Avenue, about a block away from the towering, sustainably designed Manitoba Hydro headquarters, can hardly be classified as a generic, genteel makeover. Instead, muscular balconies clad in mirrored aluminum are being cantilevered up to three metres over the windswept roadway to give residential heft and design presence to Portage.

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At another 5468796 site on Portage, and also nearing completion, is the AnX, a radical conversion of an old Greyhound bus depot on the ground floor of a poorly lit parkade. New walls of glass allow light from the east and west into what is being designed as a multiuse student centre and transit hub for the University of Winnipeg. There's also art within the architecture: 30,000 white metal tubes are being suspended from the ceiling as a dense, vertical landscape to provide visual identity and pristine elegance.

Hurme, 35, and Radulovic, 38, are immigrants to Canada - Hurme, from Helsinki; Radulovic, a political refugee from Sarajevo - and they've scooped up some of the talented graduates of the U of M's school of architecture. Part of what drives the work of the 10-person firm is a conviction that good design need not be expensive. Remarkably, their student centre is being constructed for a low-budget $85 a square foot.

Hurme and Radulovic were U of M classmates, and both worked for a big firm before cutting loose on their own. Their vision is large and laudable. "There has been a culture where public institutions in our province understand fiscal responsibility, but not civic responsibility," says Hurme. She recalls how one provincial agency told them that their buildings looked too impressive. "Everything had to be designed at the cheapest levels. But good design doesn't have to cost more. And we discovered that there's a hunger for design here."

In postwar Winnipeg, the power of design was exquisitely understood by architect and intellectual leader John A. Russell at U of M's architecture school. It was built out from 1945 to '75 with Winnipeg's fine legacy of modernist architecture, including private homes, public libraries and Winnipeg city hall. Mayor Glenn Murray stoked the fire of design during the late 1990s.

Outside playmakers have also helped build architecture's profile: Just recently, American Cesar Pelli redeveloped Winnipeg's modernist airport; Antoine Predock won a competition to design the highly ambitious, cascading glass Museum of Human Rights, set to open next year. Another significant change is that, as in other provinces, it's become less formidable to become a professionally licensed architect.

Young architects who once sat next to each other in established firms are suddenly able to burst out on their own. "There were 27 new architects in 2010, and only four in 2009," says Hargraves, the young founder of Sputnik Architecture, and producer of the warming huts open-design competition. "There are so many small firms. Collaborations have become the norm."

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With a population of 760,000, Winnipeg still ranks as a small city, but one that's being watched, and admired, for fostering big-city aspirations without the encumbrance of a big-city ego. There's invigorating humanity at work in the city's new designs; there's a Winnipeg moment going on. If the stars continue to align, it might go on and on.

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