Around 10 p.m. on a brightly moon-lit Saturday night, I stopped to pick up my friend’s daughter, Keira, at the café where she said she would be. Keira was nowhere to be found and no one had seen her. When her cell phone remained unanswered, I began to search for her.
The surrounding Exchange District was thankfully alive with people, young and old. I scanned those huddled outside clubs and searchingly gazed the faces of people walking along the avenues.
People in a moving carpet of colour streamed out of the Centennial Concert Hall’s glassed front doors. The hall was brilliant with light; gargantuan jewelled slant-bottomed chandeliers were visible in front of many levels of interior balcony walkways.
Bus riders waited in the glass bus shelter on Main Street. From the sub-level doors of the Manitoba Museum on Rupert Avenue, people streamed up and out.
But Kiera was still nowhere to be found.
Out of the car and now on foot, I glanced down James Avenue. A few figures moved in the distance among the white collection of City Hall buildings.
Beyond, the white latticed rectangle of the Civic Centre Parkade luminesced behind a dark geometric open space, appearing as moody as an Alex Colville painting.
Now trudging down King Street, I paused at the Public Safety Building. It was lit up in the night to reveal the sheer enormity of its vertical, rhythmed windows that by day were overshadowed by its immense Tyndall Stone monumentality.
It was breathtaking. Individual floors were visible through the long vertical windows; an officer sitting upon a swivel stool suddenly pulled across his office to stand up and reach for something. I wondered if soon I might be placing a call, perhaps even to that fellow – to find my daughter’s friend who seemed now lost forever to the downtown streets.
Finally, Keira answered her cell. She was at the Peasant Cookery and we had incorrect pick up times. But that night’s experience was haunting; it lingered with me for days.
PSB demolition versus historical significance
In March, a report prepared for the Property and Development, Heritage and Downtown Development Committee recommended the demolition of the Public Safety Building and Civic Centre Parkade in favour of a large public space and a sell-off of remaining land. After a 13-hour meeting, the committee requested information regarding the historical significance of the PSB.
The PSB’s southernmost portion covers what was part of the 1889 Market Square. The square was contained in only the southern section of the entire PSB and Civic Centre parkade site. Its land was bequeathed to the City upon the condition it be used for public as well as municipal purposes.
Development of the PSB and parkade site effectively removed the market, which was reproduced in modern form under Core Area Initiative 1 as Old Market Square Park. It is a triangle shaped park with its apex directly pointing to the PSB nearby.
During this time advocates talked about the Exchange District’s special collection of historic buildings and their intact streetscapes. An aggressive local campaign produced legislation and other initiatives to protect these buildings.
Considered too new to include were the modernist buildings of City Hall and its surrounding complexes, including the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the PSB. Today, these structures, like the buildings of the formally delineated Exchange District, reflect their own era of history.
Winnipeg is lauded for its special modernist architectural collection. City Hall has been designated a heritage structure and Winnipeg’s modernist buildings – found all throughout the city – have been described by history professor and author Serena Keshavjee as “one of the richest stocks of modernist architecture in Canada, a legacy of international style buildings modified to suit Manitoba’s regional demands.”
There is a great love in Winnipeg for buildings like the PSB, according to Susan Algie of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation. The group runs consistently sold-out bus tours of Winnipeg’s modernist buildings, often featuring local architects who designed the buildings. Algie says it is easy to associate negative feelings with the PSB because, like many modernist buildings, it had an institutional use.
“For many it was the place to pay a parking ticket or maybe people know it through having a family member held there,” says Algie, explaining the Manitoba Theatre Centre is in the same design, but people view it differently because it captures happy memories.
Brutalist – anything but ‘brutal’
Both the PSB and MTC have been dubbed “Brutalist” in their modernist design. The word comes from the French phrase ‘beton bruit’, meaning ‘concrete in the raw’.
Seen upon the MTC are imprints from wooden planks used to make the forms from which the concrete exterior was cast. The term ‘Brutalism’ was coined by an architectural critic but was not often used by the industry. Those who disliked the style often used it to characterize the buildings as straightforwardly unpleasant or ‘brutal’. Today the word has crept into common usage.
“It is a misnomer,” says Algie, who recommends people should look at the PSB up close, suggesting its beauty might come as a surprise.
“It was built to be a compliment to the City Hall complex. It was given extra decoration and its cadence and rhythm balances off the simplicity of City Hall,” she adds.
“I like the look of the building,” says Mike Del Buono, Exchange District BIZ board member and owner of King + Bannatyne Sandwich Shop on the corner of King and Bannatyne.
Del Buono says he would like to see the PSB retrofitted as living space for Red River Community College students along with a grocery store in it, or redeveloped as other office space.
“Bringing density to our downtown is important for it to flourish,” says Del Buono.
He says demolishing the PSB for more of what Old Market Square offers right across the street is unnecessary.
“We don’t use Old Market Square to our full potential now,” he says, adding the BIZ has many plans to use Old Market Square more, including adding year round activities.
“Tear it down,” says a worker who has been in the PSB for the last 20 years, “and build something better and newer. The PSB was built for a purpose and it is no longer serving that purpose.”
The worker adds the RRC campus across the street would do a great job with the space.
Asked if he had any sentimental feelings about the building, he says, “Ask me that in two weeks,” which is when he says he will no longer be working there.
Algie says the first thing that should be done is to have the PSB formally evaluated for its historical and architectural importance, which she says should be a general approach for all civic buildings. She says some modernist buildings in Winnipeg have received historical grade protected status, including City Hall and the St. Vital Library.
Algie doesn’t understand why the PSB hasn’t already been nominated to the list (to await a formal review) and has written to the City with this question. She has received no response to date.
Algie says the PSB is sustainable as a building and no one has said it is structurally unsound. She adds, bylaws require building owners agree to a formal heritage review process. The PSB is owned by the City.
The 1960’s civic and entertainment complex including the PSB as well as many other modernist buildings like the Winnipeg Art Gallery were products of rare economic, social and political circumstances.
There was a powerful synergistic political enthusiasm among all three levels of government to promote the Canadian, Manitoba and Winnipeg centenaries (1967, 1970 and 1974 respectively). There was also municipal and provincial will to deal with a blighted downtown core. A strong architectural presence was thought to be a large part of a way to deal with these issues.
The PSB looks futuristic as well as monumentally forceful. Architect Les Stecheson worked closely with police senior staff to design a structure that according to local press was “second to none on the continent, being well located, well designed, and functionally planned.” Among its offices was a court, jail area and even a press room in the basement.
Described in countless sources using typical modernist descriptors, for some people the building retains a more attractive and timeless modernity. Walking tour participants have described the PSB as appearing covered with curious stylistic keyboard imagery, or its lines and indents similar to easily read symbols of good computer coding.
However described, many believe the PSB has fundamental historical and architectural value and is worthy of saving because of it. The PSB’s construction was part Winnipeg’s dynamic cultural reassertion after the city was frozen from war and economic depression. The building is an integral part of a civic and entertainment complex designed with the collaboration of each structure in mind; it is part of a collection.
Winnipeg’s modernist history
Winnipeg modernist buildings were special due to the influence of the University of Manitoba’s architecture school, “the only school that mattered,” according to architects. This reputation was due to the influence of the school’s head, John A. Russell, who arrived there in 1946.
Some faculty members studied abroad under architectural ‘greats’ such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus – an influential design school considered the basis of the modernist movement.
The school sought to connect to the local arts community, hosted international guest lecturers, encouraged international alliances, and created many large architectural competitions (including the design for City Hall). This distillation resulted in vital local adaptations of the modernist style with use of local Tyndall Stone and creative input by clients for whom the buildings were designed.
Ever since the first gallons of concrete were poured, modernist buildings in Winnipeg captured their era’s version of a belief in the future. New technology could build structures in entirely new ways to reflect a society of change. Post war population booms along with already pent-up demand for new facilities saw the unprecedented construction of schools, government buildings, cultural centres and more.
From the late 50’s through to the 70’s, life was astounding: man walked on the moon, previously unseen political reform took place, people talked of counter-cultural revolution; gender roles began to differ with advancing science that developed the birth control pill.
In short, Winnipeg’s modernist buildings tell a story.
For many years, the buildings of the Exchange District, now considered historic, were seen worthy of removal. Time has allowed for their appreciation.
Today Winnipeg is becoming a city of cultural experience and history, most excitingly with the opening of a new national museum. The Architecture Foundation’s “Brutalist Tour” of Winnipeg’s modernist buildings is popular. The PSB figures prominently in it.
Pressure for redevelopment will only increase; many argue Winnipeg’s architectural history is fundamental to showcase Winnipeg’s story and identity. Very special buildings like the PSB provide an enhanced livability among meaningful and beautiful buildings.
Tomorrow on CNC: Decision time at City Hall over PSB’s fate