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Leading architects explore becoming agents of change

Kathleen Renne
Leading architects explore becoming agents of change

Architecture as an agent of change. That’s the notion Winnipeg architects Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic explored at the recent Festival of Architecture in Calgary, Alta.

"We graduated in the 2000s, and many of our colleagues were leaving and going to Vancouver and London …We started our firm in 2007 and made it our goal to re-invigorate local architecture in Winnipeg," explained Hurme, adding that both she and Radulovic immigrated from Europe and didn’t want to re-locate yet again.

"At that time, there was little belief that architecture was viable in Winnipeg in any way," Hurme said.

However, the two set out to prove that thinking wrong with the creation of 5468796 Architecture, a firm that strives to meet several goals including building architectural culture and advancing the profession.

One of the firm’s early projects was a small townhouse development in downtown Winnipeg, the first the area had seen in two decades.

With the development, Hurme and Radulovic employed a design lesson they both had learned from living in Europe: life happens between the buildings.

"Each building we work on impacts the next building. The majority of people in Helsinki, where I’m from, live in multi-family housing. The yard is a shared space. Friendships start in the yards and between the buildings," Hurme explained, adding that concept is something unfamiliar to many Canadians.

In Canada, the prevailing notion is that condos are usually the preserve of students and seniors.

"You can raise a family in a condo," said Hurme, adding that architectural design – and those social spaces outside the building – plays a role in changing peoples’ thinking about condominium living.

5468796 Architecture has been responsible for a number of condo projects in Winnipeg including Centre Village, a "micro village" that includes 25 affordable, micro-apartment units for low-income families; The Avenue on Portage, a heritage-restoration project that features rental units and commercial space; and Bloc-10, a 10-unit condominium project that "strives to re-imagine and re-invent the market-driven condominium."

One project for which 5468796 Architecture received a lot of publicity is The Cube, an open-air performance stage located in Old Market Square (OMS) Park.

An "interactive art fixture" in itself, The Cube has both a main and rooftop stage.

As described by Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, in which The Cube is located, the structure’s outer shell is "a dynamic membrane composed of diamond extrusions strung together to form a flexible curtain that draws back revealing the stage and structure within."

Hurme and Radulovic admitted that The Cube’s design met with controversy, but that didn’t’ stop them.

"We’re most proud of the fact we started a conversation," said Radulovic.

Today, Hurme added, The Cube is one of Winnipeg’s top destinations for wedding photography.

Hurme said one of the challenges Canadian architecture faces is the nation’s diversity. Because the community encompasses people from so many backgrounds, Hurme posits it’s more difficult for Canada to have a unified architectural aesthetic, compared to a nation like Denmark.

"Can we build a strong voice for Canadian architecture?" she asked.

To explore this, 5468796 Architecture spearheaded a project called Migrating Landscapes, which was Canada’s official entry at the 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture.

It involved the work of several young architects and designers from across the country. Among the questions Migrating Landscapes explored was: "How might specific cultural memory be captured and rendered, informing the ways we generate design?"

5468796 Architecture also helped spearhead a 2014 event called Table for 1,200, a sort of "pop-up dining room," in which citizens sat at a 1,200-foot long dining table – comprised of 150 individual tables pushed together – to discuss architecture, design and their impacts on community.

"It is possible to re-invigorate peoples’ interactions with buildings," Radulovic asserted

Currently, Hurme said she’s engaged in encouraging Winnipeg’s Chamber of Commerce to think about the concept of design economy.

"Can we change the talk about design as an economic driver?" Hurme asks, saying she’s challenging the Chamber to do just that.

"Today, there’s more of a willingness to spend money on quality and authenticity of design … There’s a growing sense that architecture matters," she added.

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