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Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building, headquarters for the city’s police services, is part of a modernist cluster of buildings in the city’s historic Exchange District. (John Woods/The Globe And Mail)
Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building, headquarters for the city’s police services, is part of a modernist cluster of buildings in the city’s historic Exchange District. (John Woods/The Globe And Mail)

Architecture

The Public Safety Building - enter at your own risk Add to ...

It tries hard to be a serious building, all hard edges and concrete, a drill sergeant in limestone. But for all its glowering posture, the Public Safety Building is the city's architectural laughingstock.

Last Friday, for the second time in three days, police officers took refuge inside Red River College and stared across Princess Street to the PSB, the sorry workplace of several hundred Winnipeg Police Service employees.

In three years, police will evacuate the building for good, moving to a former Canada Post headquarters. While Red River College has expressed interest in the PSB, it joins a number of modernist buildings in the city with an uncertain fate. Chief among them is the Winnipeg airport, which will move into a new terminal by year's end, deserting the modernist showpiece it now occupies.

"These buildings are important," said Serena Keshavjee, an art history professor at the University of Winnipeg and author of Winnipeg Modern, a book that details the city's rich catalogue of designs from the 60s and 70s. "Most cities are trying to preserve them, but in Winnipeg there isn't even a debate and I'm not sure why."

On this day, noxious fumes had wafted into the building's upper stories, prompting police workers to leave, and Hazmat workers to arrive.

A grimy man searching garbage cans looked up at the police station surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape and a fleet of city trucks and shook his head. "Tear it all down," he mused. "Look at that thing. I won't go near it."

Erected during a tizzy of pre-centennial construction in 1966, the PSB is part of a modernist ensemble of buildings in the city's historic Exchange District that includes City Hall and the Manitoba Museum.

But the PSB's exterior, made of brittle Tyndall limestone, hasn't held up against Winnipeg's climate. Dozens of steel brackets cling to the building's exterior like Band-Aids, preventing the facade from avalanching into the street. A $98,000 awning encircles the building, stopping pieces of the gaudy structure from braining pedestrians.

The blemishes have earned many detractors who see it as a dysfunctional and garish example of modernism.

"More than just its state of repair, it has always been a very authoritarian structure," said University of Winnipeg social historian David Burley. "That was always the unpleasant aspect of modernist architecture."

In Winnipeg, as elsewhere, buildings such as the PSB have become the ugly ducklings of the urban landscape. Their harsh, uninviting lines have initiated battles between developers and preservationists in cities across North America. Winnipeg is just now entering the fray.

"It's not a love-hate relationship people have with these buildings; it's just hate," Dr. Keshavjee said. "People grew up with these buildings and don't see them as heritage buildings, but the same thing happened 40 years ago with Victoria structures."

"Had we ripped out every Victorian building in the country we would be very sorry these days," she said. "And these are the times when they become vulnerable. The country is coming out of recession and people are gearing up to tear things down."

There's historical value to buildings such as the battle-scared PSB, according to Dr. Burley. Modernism reflects a time when the federal government lavished money on public projects and Canadian pride soared ahead of Expo 67 and the centennial. "It was a nationwide movement," he said. "There was this great optimism. The central parts of cities had deteriorated and there was a sense it was time to redevelop things."

As for the PSB, the city plans to ditch it as soon as the police are out the door.

"We're looking at disposing of it honestly," said city councillor Gord Steeves. "I can't imagine there'll be any use for it, though we'd like to see Red River College take it over."

When he was first elected to council 10 years ago, Mr. Steeves wasn't sold on the building's severe exterior. But gazing at it day after day has softened his view. "I think it looks kind of nice," he said. "And I know that is not the pervasive opinion."

Of course, as the city's head real-estate agent, he may have an ulterior motive.

"If there are any takers out there I could easily walk them around for a tour. For a cool $60-million and no strings attached, it's theirs for the taking."

 

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