Let’s begin

Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue is a storied Canadian street. Smack in the middle of the country, its arrow-straight east-west orientation has been a dynamic metaphor for how the nation has evolved. Its fortunes declined precipitously when the prairie city lost its role as grain merchant to the world and transportation hub for the nation. With Winnipeg’s recent economic renaissance, however, Portage’s creative reawakening has produced a lively adaptive renovation of two side-by-side, long-vacant heritage buildings. Above the street, apartments boast polished-aluminum box balconies impishly extruded from the neo-classical heritage facade. The street level -– as well as two additional floors of the narrower of the two structures – houses the new home for Manitoba Start, a non-profit organization providing orientation, career counseling and employment workshops to new immigrants. Imaginative, confidently transparent and filled with prairie sunshine, the 22,500-square-foot facility is the work of Winnipeg’s fast-rising firm 5468796 Architecture, which last year was tagged as one of the world’s best young “vanguard” firms by Architectural Record.

The client’s program of varied services, says architect Colin Neufeld, demanded equally varied spaces: from typical offices to private counselling, lounging and informal gathering spaces to formal classrooms. At the same time, “they wanted a cohesive, flowing space that was understandable and navigable without English literacy skills.” The given space offered both challenges and opportunities. Its unique, even chaotic floor plan presented only one glazed side, albeit 120 feet of uninterrupted visual connection to Winnipeg’s preeminent avenue. It offered a generous if intimidating 18-foot ceiling on the main floor, as well as a parallelogram structural geometry presenting an orthogonal grid intersecting the street and rear lane. 

In terms of ambience, Neufeld says, “they needed this space to flow, be understandable to a variety of people, feel welcoming and warm, but also modern and professional.” It also had to reflect environments participants would encounter in the workplace. Finally, this multifunctional space needed to embody “ethnic acceptance while not claiming any specific cultural references.”

To achieve this set of subtly complex objectives, the architects first tucked in and realigned the street facade as a floor-to-ceiling wall of faceted glass. This both expanded the sidewalk into a modest plaza while offering pedestrians views of the centre’s activities. To tame the towering ceiling, a mezzanine level was inserted on the ground level of the smaller building. The broad stairs accessing this level, awash with southern light, serve as causal amphitheatre-like seating providing views of open meeting areas, the comings and goings at the centre’s freestanding reception “box,” as well as action outside on the busy sidewalk. Toward the front of the mezzanine, a rotated shaft of richly hued maple plywood containing stairs and an elevator penetrate a large square opening to the two floors above.

The rotation of volumes plays a central role in giving the space kinetic energy and informality, but also legibility. Like objects artfully tossed onto a largely flat prairie landscape, glass, maple and white-painted MDF box-rooms are placed at 30 and 60 degrees off axis. These enclosed volumes, with various levels of transparency, also help define multiple and uniquely angled “leftover” open spaces for informal meetings, relaxing or casual conversations. “This angular geometry,” says Neufeld, “also helped us create flow and connectivity around all of the structural obstructions,” but was also carried into a hexagonal geometry that emerged as an oft-repeated expressive vocabulary.

Hexagonal shapes exist at the macro floor-plan level, while also expressed in elements such as the ceiling’s fluorescent tube lighting fixtures and the wayfinding graphics on walls. Frequent use of hexagonal perforations in otherwise opaque maple walls provides “peek-a-boo” openness, while similar fritted patterning on the glass walls of some classrooms reverses the process, allowing light transmittance yet still reducing distractions for students inside. Some partition walls, created by layering different combinations of solid and perforated white-MDF and maple plywood, produce filigree screens of shape-shifting patterns and perforations. Says Neufeld, “The repeated pattern establishes a coherent spatial arrangement and cohesive branding for the organization,” all feasible within the centres modest $1.7-million budget.    

Manitoba Start’s new home offers new immigrants a nifty metaphor of Canada’s cultural goal of transparency and openness while also highlighting the positive role they continue to play in Manitoba’s evolving culture and economy.   cI