Where better to have such a thought than in the Garden of Contemplation?
The famous American architect Antoine Predock was looking up through the sweeping “glass cloud” that covers the river side of his Canadian Museum for Human Rights when he suddenly turned to Gail Asper and raised his hands to the heavens. “I cannot believe you let me get away with this!”
This will likely go down as the greatest achievement of the 77-year-old designer. The national museum – announced last week to open in September, 2014 – is virtually finished on the outside, deep into preparation on the inside. It is a striking and memorable building, if rather eccentric. The 100-metre Tower of Hope is already Winnipeg’s CN, Pisa, Eiffel – the instantly recognizable icon for a city that, strangely, has never had a commanding one before, though the “Golden Boy” statue atop the provincial legislature is widely recognizable.
Mr. Predock says he designed the structure so that it would appear as if a giant dove of peace were folding its wings in comfort over the building. Critics say it looks like a raised middle finger or a Kaiser military helmet – but then it is the critics as much as the celebrants who draw special attention to a place.
The museum was the idea of the late Izzy Asper, the broadcast mogul who never left his base in Winnipeg. The son of Russian Jews who found freedom from persecution in Canada, Mr. Asper had long funded student trips to Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum. Late in life, however, he decided Canada should have its own human-rights memorial – and why not right here in Winnipeg?
“You’re nuts,” his daughter Gail told him.
And yet, a full decade after Izzy Asper’s death, it is the daughter who is pulling it off. Total capital cost for the museum is $351-million. The federal government, which will run it as a national museum, put in $100-million, the province of Manitoba $40-million and the city of Winnipeg $23.6-million.
The greatest contribution, however, has come from private donations – now more than $142-million. More than 7,500 people have given money, some as little as a few dollars. Gail Asper – a small whirlwind of energy who is also a Winnipeg lawyer – has gotten pledges of $1-million or more from 51 individuals “and I want 60, 70 if I can get them.” Some of her million-dollar donors required eight years of persistent persuasion before they would give. As those who know her well put it: “You don’t say ‘No’ to Gail.”
Mr. Predock wanted the structure to appear “organic.” The four main concrete supports he calls “roots.” The subterranean start of the journey is over a floor tinted to look like the cracked bed of the nearby Red River. Through a kilometre or so of twisting and turning ramps, visitors rise up through alabaster railings – light dancing through the translucent stone – to visit a dozen interactive galleries until, if not suffering severe vertigo, they reach the Tower of Hope that rises high above the “glass cloud.”
Emphasis will be on learning, with classrooms built into the museum. The hope is to attract students and human-rights groups from around the world to come to Winnipeg and see for themselves. And what they will see, regardless of what they make of Antoine Predock’s unusual building, is a city that has changed dramatically and is still changing.
The return of the National Hockey League’s Jets, curiously, did something to local sensibility that reaches far beyond sports. There is a “we matter” swagger that was last seen in these parts a century ago when, briefly, Winnipeg was poised to become the hub of the prairies, Canada’s Chicago. It never quite happened.
The Jets, locals say, put The ’Peg back on the map. The museum will do the same. Combine all that with plans for an expanded convention centre, new hotels, a new football stadium, a $90-million project that would transform Assiniboine Park and include a world-class polar bear exhibit, a new IKEA superstore and a brand-new airport, and Winnipeg 2013 is far removed from, say, Winnipeg 2010.
That is not to say everything is perfect. People worry about the costs of sustaining such an ambitious museum. There was an awkward moment when a proposal was put forward to build a hotel and water park by the museum. The new football stadium is both impressive and has flaws – poor press facilities, a promised winter roof now put off indefinitely. There is empty retail space downtown. And the journey from the wonderful new James Armstrong Richardson International Airport to the beauty of the downtown Forks is easily the worst introduction to any city in Canada.
This “entrance” flaw is known and may even be addressed: “…the time could not be better,” the head of the chamber of commerce recently wrote in the Free Press, “for us to beautify one of Winnipeg’s most travelled roads and show the strength of our newly invigorated pride in our city.”
Crime is down and confidence up. Winnipeg is a different city. And ’Peggers are somewhat like “urban Cape Bretoners” in that they remain fiercely proud of their roots even if they don’t happen to live there.
“It’s the Winnipeg diaspora,” Gail Asper says. “If we repatriated all the people of Winnipeg, we’d be a city of eight million.”
They won’t all come back, but those who do will see a different place than they left. “Company’s coming,” Ms. Asper says. “And we’ll be ready.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly said 75,000 people have given private donations. In fact, it is 7,500.