Portfolio of the Week: 5468796 Architecture

A Winnipeg-based firm on the city's budding architecture scene.

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When you think cutting edge 21st century architecture, Winnipeg is not the first city that comes to mind.

But perhaps it should. 5468796 Architecture has been producing much of their work in the firm's home city, designing buildings that stand out, with unconventional forms. To get inside these avant garde minds, we asked 5468796 a couple of questions about their work and their home city. They answered collectively and anonymously (a philosophy that also defines their work).

There's a surprising amount of interesting architecture recently completed or planned in Winnipeg. Has there been a cultural shift in what the city expects out of its architecture?

There’s definitely new momentum and new optimism about the future of architecture and its place in our city. While it might not seem relevant to a discussion on the built environment, the return of the Winnipeg Jets has had a big impact on public pride in the downtown, bringing with it an influx of people and spurring development in what’s being branded as the new Entertainment District.

The cultural shift that you've noted is also due to a few high-profile projects that were instigated in recent years, including the new James A. Richardson Airport terminal, the Manitoba Hydro Building, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The last two in particular have had a huge effect on the downtown skyline, shaking up public perception about what’s possible in our city.

On a smaller scale, we’ve worked with a number of local developers who’ve experienced encouraging results with their projects, whether it’s winning an international award or pre-selling an entire condominium development in a single afternoon. These modest but significant successes prove that world class architecture can come from Winnipeg – it’s an opinion that’s starting to spread, but we still have a long way to go.

The Bond Tower makes a loud statement on its own, but even more so in relation to its surroundings. What was the approach 5468796 took when thinking about the kind of impact it should have on the skyline and in its neighborhood?

Situated just beyond the cluster of beige high-rises that define our city center, Bond Tower’s site is unique in that, surrounded by a sea of concrete, the concept of ‘neighborhood’ is almost non-existent. The sad reality of many down towns, and ours in particular, is that the current tax structure makes surface parking lots more profitable than new buildings.

As a result, there’s been more demolition than construction in recent years. With a growing level of certainty in our city’s future, we’re hopeful that new architecture will follow. In many ways we’re just starting to understand what might be achievable.

Where a 33’ x 100’ lot would be seen by most as unfit for major development, the proposal for Bond Tower tries to prove otherwise, communicating a positive message that development downtown is still feasible. With a flexible ownership model based on the sale of corporate condominiums, each level can be sold and divided in a multitude of different ways, depending on current needs.

In some respects the lack of surrounding buildings is advantageous; because the eleven story tower is so isolated, it affords a series of amazing views that are framed by the five apertures piercing through the façade. Since the building is placed flush with the side yards, glazing is only permitted on the shorter north and south ends. The cut out openings help draw light and air into the building, and become an accessible, outdoor social space for people to gather.

You submitted a redesign for the interior of the very classical and long-neglected Mitchell-Copp building (since marked for demolition). Can it be limiting or even intimidating, design-wise, when creating a very advanced image for something historic?

We think that the best approach to historic renovations – and this opinion is supported by the city’s preservation guidelines (at least on paper) – is that in order to respect the old, it needs to be viewed in contrast with the new.

In the case of our proposal for the Mitchell-Copp building, which survived a number of fires and sat empty for many years, we recognized that the exterior façade was the only lasting material remnant of the structure’s role as a bank in the early 1900s. Inside the brick shell, it was clear that the historic elements worth honoring were the 60’ high ceilings and a large skylight stretching the length of the building.

For the final design, we decided to sink the main floor down into the basement and suspend a transparent box of offices within the larger body of the space. In doing so, we were able to preserve the dramatic volume and qualities of light that were such unique features of the original structure.

Architectural aesthetics aside, the design had important financial implications for the developer. In its current form, the 3,500 square foot footprint does not provide enough leasable square footage to be economically feasible. Instead of filling in the structure with floor plates and betraying the building’s character, the proposed design establishes what we feel is a modern, complementary relationship between historic precedent and contemporary ideals.

In a smaller, perhaps more conservative market like the one most of your work is in, are there struggles to sell the firm’s vision for specific projects?

Change is always challenging, especially in a city where new architecture and design get very little media coverage compared to other cultures. For this reason, the climate is definitely a more conservative one, and we’ve learned that there are a number of different levels at which a project must be ‘sold’ or proven, whether it’s to the immediate client, the authorities, the user group, or the general public.

In what ways does the typical Winnipeg winter limit or enable design experimentation?

People often say that if you can build in Winnipeg, you should be able to build anywhere in North America. Our city is known for its drastic seasonal shifts, from +40°C on a rare day in summer to -40°C in the winter. Any building must contend with the increased cost of construction that comes with addressing these extreme swings in temperature.

Developments also tend to concentrate on buildings in isolation, as exterior spaces are not valued as much due to the long and cold winters that send Winnipeggers indoors to hibernate. The result is an abundance of poorly considered outdoor areas.

When we were working on the design for OMS Stage, an open-air music venue in a well known local park, one of our biggest considerations was what the stage could become when it wasn't a hub of summer activity. The design of the flexible aluminum screen allows the venue to be programmed for a range of different functions. When open, the retracted skin becomes a draped and undulating ceiling landscape, providing a unique setting for performances. When closed, 18,000 angled metal pieces capture and refract light or images, creating a pixel matrix that can be used as an interactive display.

A less serious question. Have clients or co-workers developed a quicker or easier way to refer to the firm? Perhaps an official alternative name?

Barcode is the most common alternate name, then 546, and sometimes The Numbered Company. One local blogger affectionately refers to us as 90210, and we were told recently by someone that the sequence is very close to their mom’s old phone number. 

5468796 is actually the registered business name for the company. It is a record in time and place, as this number was available in Manitoba on the date of incorporation only, making it a very precise temporal and geographical record.

The number also gives a level of anonymity to the group (twelve in total). We often find that throughout the design process, six or seven different people might touch a project from a theoretical and architectural standpoint. Therefore, the work can never be attributed to a single author, as each person contributes an equally important element to the design or helps bring it through an impasse. We hope the name reflects these values.

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