Soon, on a vacant lot next to the Disraeli Freeway in downtown Winnipeg, there will appear a flying saucer.
More precisely, it will be a building shaped like a flying saucer – round, 130 feet across, resting on thin stilts and containing two layers of pie-shaped condo apartments. It will be less strange than an alien spacecraft, but still plenty weird. It is the work of a local developer and the young professionals at 5468796 Architecture, and if you ask them, it’s all quite sensible.
“We came about this in a very rational manner,” says architect Ken Borton, who led the design for the project at 5468796. The site “is surrounded by undesireable things on all sides,” he says – light industry, the highway, and the back of another apartment complex. That meant it would be a challenge to make it an attractive place for Winnipeg’s young professionals to buy into. “We came to the conclusion that we had to push it up in the air.” The residents of its 40 units will overlook the Red River or – peeking over the freeway – much of Winnipeg beyond. And all this for an entry-level price of less than $200,000 for a 600-square-foot apartment.
Does that make sense? This sort of skewed but undeniable logic has driven 5468796 and their partners to create a string of distinctive buildings in and around downtown Winnipeg. Working mostly on the margins of the city’s real estate industry, the architects have designed and constructed buildings – from a glimmering park pavilion to a boldly sculptural office building and several innovative condo projects – that are consistently surprising and beautiful. In Montreal or Toronto, it would be an impressive body of work. But in Winnipeg? Where did that flying saucer come from?
Even the developer is not totally certain. “546 has the ability to convince me to do stuff that nobody else does,” says Mark Penner, a thirty-something real estate agent, the head of Greenseed Development and the force behind this project. “I’m not totally sure how it came to be round. But they made a series of really good arguments. And if nobody gives us a good reason not to do something crazy, we stick with it.”
This attitude has paid off for the designers, who two weeks ago added the Emerging Architectural Practice Award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada to their long list of awards. It has also paid off for Mr. Penner, who as a builder and a developer has found profit in remaking marginal and challenging bits of Winnipeg’s urban fabric.
They previously collaborated on a “crazy” collection of apartments right next door to the 62M site – on a very long, narrow, awkward piece of land. Dubbed YouCube, that collection of 18 townhouses is a complex composition of cubes and rectangular forms, with a layered interior of two-, three- and four-level units. It won a series of design awards, and despite its unusual design and slightly marginal location, it sold. Mr. Penner was ready to go back and work next door – with more units, and without the headaches of building 18 different units.
Hence the idea for 62M’s 40 pie-shaped apartments, all identical. Each one has a door at the tip of the pie slice, leading into an entryway with a laundry closet; a galley kitchen with an island; and then, at the widest part, facing the windows, either a separate bedroom with sliding wall panels or a home office space. Both configurations call for a Murphy bed that can fold up during the day, creating more living space. A triangle is not, it must be said, the most efficient form for an apartment, but these are extremely well-planned, and the form does provide benefits. Here is where the leaps of logic begin. One: affordability. The plan “allows for 40 identical suites, which means cheaper construction,” Mr. Borton said, “because you don’t get custom details at the corners of the building.” Instead, the fabric of the building continues repetitively all the way around. This outside façade is not technically curved, but a series of many faceted flat windowpanes. Mr. Penner says it took a while to get a contractor to understand these details, but they are possible and affordable.
Two: the virtues of geometry. Within the building, there are likewise as few curves as possible – curves being equally inconvenient in interior layouts and construction. Only the glass wall is curved – which means a range of views and lots of daylight. “At the end of a pie-slice, you get the most light and the most surface area,” Mr. Borton observes.
Three: the creation of an icon. This building will be as memorable as a Martian, and that is to its advantage, with more expensive condos right on the riverfront nearby being sold now as well. Though the downtown real estate market is improving, Mr. Penner puts it this way: “We’re just starting to rebuild our downtown.” In this context 62M has received local press, but Mr. Borton says it’s also engendered much skepticism. “People’s response is that there’s no way this is going to get built in Winnipeg,” he says. “There is caution … It’s going to be exciting when people realize this is going to be a real project and not just an idea somebody’s throwing around.”
With the building going into construction this spring, that day is coming. And now the architects and Mr. Penner are “really working hard to figure out the space underneath,” Mr. Borton says. Parking is around the edges, leaving a circle nearly 100 feet in diameter as open space. They’re working with landscape architects Atelier Anonymous on some interesting concepts, including a stand of jack pines to animate this space, whose purpose is still a bit uncertain. In the middle of this is the elevator lobby, which will be very tight – just eight feet across. They’re studying hard how to make those spaces sing: to follow through on their logic down to the details of how they will be experienced by the people who live there. This is where good architects show their sense of responsibility and the fullness of their design vision, and 5468796 certainly do that.