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Dollar-deft design: Winnipeg architects take a cost-sensitive approach

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The award-winning Centre Village, a smart, artistically notable public housing complex in a shabby Winnipeg inner-city neighbourhood, cost just $137 a foot to build.

James Brittain

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Since coming into existence just seven years ago, the Winnipeg firm known as 5468796 Architecture – 546, for short – has been deluged by awards, honours, fellowships and favourable write-ups in the building art’s national and international press. The busy office run by co-founders Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic is widely regarded as Canada’s premiere emerging architectural practice – even though its designs have been realized, up to now, no farther than a stone’s throw from the intersection of Portage and Main.

James Brittain

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An exhibition of 546’s work has opened at the University of Toronto’s Eric Arthur Gallery. Using models, texts and images, this intense, little show tells the stories of 12 multifamily residential projects by 546. It doesn’t get much more grittier, in urban Canada anyway, than the sites the firm has been asked to design housing for. They include oddly-shaped nooks and crannies in Winnipeg’s grid, the edges of industrial areas, high-crime neighbourhoods, streets owned by sex traffickers. The typical combination of difficult locale and tight budget – the clients are often non-profits or public agencies – would seem to invite, almost inevitably, residential designs that are very ordinary. But 546 is different that way.

James Brittain

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546 is managing to create low-cost, high-quality designs for their clients by investing their considerable talents heavily on the artistic end, while proposing execution of their schemes by the least expensive, simplest means available in Winnipeg. Their formally imaginative works are commonly wood-framed and clad in quite ordinary construction materials. Impressive surfaces turn out to be fashioned from garden-variety stuff.

James Brittain

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Centre Village, street view.

James Brittain

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Welcome Place. The 23-unit block offers transitional shelter to freshly-landed refugees from parts of the world afflicted by violence and strife. For a project cost of $152 a square foot, the firm has fashioned a very fresh, pertly modernist building that speaks eloquently of both newness and protection.

James Brittain

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At Welcome Place, the client was the same not-for-profit group that housed 546 architect Sasa Radulovic after he fled to Winnipeg from war-torn Yugoslavia.

James Brittain

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Irregularly scattered, deeply inset openings punctuate and animate the boxy structure’s white skin, providing views to the outside world and (because the windows are small) privacy for those who dwell within. It is surely high time for a developer (perhaps outside Winnipeg, for a change) to give 5468796 Architecture a chance to do a big-ticket item – if only so we can see what this gifted office does when it’s allowed to spread its wings. The T412 exhibition runs at Eric Arthur Gallery, 230 College St., through April 4.

James Brittain

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Welcome Place residents peek out at the street through a metal screen.

James Brittain

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