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Winnipeg firm loosens the bonds of routine modernism

For the culturally savvy, and for those who would like to be, IIDEX Canada stands high on the list of Toronto's can't-miss events. And here it comes again: The latest version of this annual design and architecture exposition will be up and running at the Direct Energy Centre next Thursday and Friday, bringing with it something for everyone concerned about how our homes and cities look and work.

IIDEX is a trade fair, of course, so a panoply of new commercial products and materials will be on display. But it is also, and more importantly, a festival of the ideas that animate contemporary design. Rising international stars will be on hand to share their insights into the making of beautiful dwellings, offices and parks. A senior designer with the Walt Disney empire will talk about how lighting sculpts space and tells stories. The architecture keynote will feature a panel discussion among experts about the important topic of design's social responsibilities. And there is much more.

With so many heavyweight performances on offer, visitors may be tempted to skip Friday afternoon's presentations (starting at 1 p.m.) by some winners in last year's Twenty + Change exhibition in Toronto. But it shouldn't be missed. If the jurors of this competition were right, these young Canadian architects and designers will likely be stamping their visions on our cities for the next half-century. They are people we should be watching.

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Take, for example, the Winnipeg office known as 5468796 Architecture. (It's their business registration number.)

You have to be quick to keep up with founding partners Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic and their colleagues at this small practice. They have recently given their home town very fresh and interesting multi-unit residential projects, including the Centre Village social housing complex. A couple of weeks ago, Ms. Hurme and Mr. Radulovic were in Venice to launch Migrating Landscapes, the show they put together (in partnership with architect Jae-Sung Chon) to represent Canada in this autumn's Biennale of Architecture. And they are currently planning some highly imaginative single-family dwellings. So what could they be up to next?

"We dream about doing work outside Winnipeg," Ms. Hurme told me last week. "It would be very interesting to design in a different context. We got a taste of that when we organized Migrating Landscapes, by working in different cities." (The show now on view in Venice is the finale in a series of juried exhibitions that the team mounted in cities across Canada during the last year.)

While wanting to spread the firm's wings geographically, Ms. Hurme would also like the opportunity to go beyond the building type – the residence, either multi-unit or single-family – that has been putting food on 5468796's table so far.

"It would be interesting to test our skills in different typologies as well," she noted, "including institutional work, perhaps for universities, or places of worship." Ms. Hurme could get her wish to do something other than housing, if the Winnipeg Art Gallery accepts the office's recent proposal to design an addition to its dramatically modernist home.

While the details of the museum bid are still under wraps, the scheme is probably unlike anything 5468796 has done before now. Each of their projects, after all, has been cast in an architectural vocabulary that could loosely be called "modernist" – anti-historical, anti-romantic, lean and geometrically square-jawed – but each bears the distinctive marks of strong, original thinking and an independence from routine modernism's tired formulas. The firm aspires, Ms. Hurme said, to be styleless.

She has arrived at this conclusion after a long meditation on the works and careers of two living European architects she deeply admires. One is the eminent Swiss designer Peter Zumthor. With the same idealism that drives Ms. Hurme's commitment to stylelessness, Mr. Zumthor has written: "To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well – a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being that."

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Another architectural influence she acknowledges is Rem Koolhaas. "He seems not to have a style," Ms. Hurme explained. "His work is about trying to discover something each time, invent something, do something new."

IIDEX is, as it should be, a big, noisy celebration of what's hot and what's not in the design industry. Perhaps it is not the best perch from which to broadcast the subtle ideas and ideals that inform the work of 5468796 and other young Canadian practices. But their voices deserve to be heard, and, next Friday, Toronto will have a good chance to listen to these voices from the future of Canadian design.

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John More


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