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Architect Clifford Wiens, undated portrait. Credit: The University of Regina

The University of Regina

As a boy in the 1930s, Clifford Wiens learned early to build. Wandering on his pony Orphan Annie across his family’s acreage near Glen Kerr, Sask., he constructed waterwheels, playhouses for the farm cats and contraptions of his own from abandoned machinery. And he helped his father construct chicken houses and miles of barbed-wire fence, keeping the family’s livelihood intact. “Growing up on a Saskatchewan farm has been the foundation of my architectural education,” he would write, late in life.

That education continued, including at an elite American institution. But Mr. Wiens spent most of his life in his home province – and reshaped it, as its leading architect of the postwar era. Mr. Wiens designed a wide variety of buildings in Regina and elsewhere in Saskatchewan, including private homes, schools, churches, hospitals, the Prince Albert City Hall and the provincial CBC headquarters.

Through his 40-year career, the lessons of farm life, including a deep respect for nature and a visceral understanding of structure, stayed with him. “His understanding of the material world wasn’t something that was academic,” his daughter Robin Poitras recalls. “Form and function were a reality, and they had to do with survival.”

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Mr. Wiens died Jan. 25 at his home in Vancouver surrounded by family, including all six of his children. He had just completed the last of his 17 books, which spanned poetry, memoir and architecture. Mr. Wiens was 93.

Born on April 27, 1926, near Glen Kerr, he developed a strong connection to nature and to art during his childhood. Ms. Poitras recalls some of his early paintings, of natural subjects, “to which you could tell he had a connection,” she says. Mr. Wiens made his own brushes, and pursued his interest in painting largely in isolation. He studied agriculture in Regina, and then went to Banff to study painting with A.Y. Jackson.

In 1949 he applied for – and received a full scholarship to – the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD’s curriculum was influenced by the Bauhaus, and emphasized a cross-disciplinary approach to architecture, industrial design and the arts; the school was also strong in graphic design and industrial design, and this interdisciplinary approach resonated with Mr. Wiens. He designed products, including farm machinery, and furniture throughout his career as an architect.

In 1956, Mr. Wiens married Patricia Leigh. The couple would have six children in quick succession, and remain married for 62 years. Mrs. Wiens was a strong intellectual and creative partner. She earned a degree in fine arts from the University of Manitoba, and worked for a time as an assistant to Norah McCullough at the Saskatchewan Arts Board – a pioneering organization that began almost a decade before the Canada Council for the Arts. Mrs. Wiens herself was a potter but, following a path familiar to women of her generation, turned her attention to raising her children. “She made everything,” Ms. Poitras recalls, “all the pots we ate from, our sweaters. And my father made the structures we played in.”

Saskatchewan in the 1950s was a progressive milieu. “Progressive politics fed progressive artistic ideas,” says the writer and curator Trevor Boddy, who curated a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Wiens’s work in 2005. In this forward-looking Regina, Mr. Wiens fit in well. “A farmer-Mennonite practicality was one of his great virtues,” Mr. Boddy says, “but he was also an intellectual.”

University of Regina Central Heating and Colling Plant, which was designed by Clifford Wiens, and received the Prix du XXe siècle from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2011.

Brigdens Q71-0124 / Courtesy of The University of Regina

The Wienses and their children were close with the members of the Regina Five: the painters Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Ronald Bloore, Douglas Morton and Ted Godwin, who pursued abstract work that was in conversation with the Abstract Expressionism and Color Field movements. The five were featured in a 1961 exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa – an earlier version of which had included Mr. Wiens’s architectural models. The architect, along with artist and poet Roy Kiyooka, formed a tight circle. “There was a lot of art-making, a lot of generosity, a lot of studio visits back and forth,” Ms. Poitras recalls.

Mr. Wiens’s work was part of a continuing conversation with artists and makers. The studio and shop he completed for John Nugent in 1960 is a case in point. Its conical roof is constructed of thin-shell reinforced concrete, an advanced technique reflecting international influences; it also used concrete culverts for its window openings. Built on weekends by the artist and architect themselves, it was modest in budget but intellectually ambitious. (It might have influenced the similar shape of what is now the Vancouver Museum, completed seven years later.)

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At home, Mr. Wiens worked for more than a decade on a refurbishment of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building. And in other projects, he expressed a bold Prairie Modernism, most famously at the University of Regina. That institution’s plan and initial buildings were designed by the prominent Japanese-American modernist Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center. Mr. Wiens’s Heating and Cooling Plant (1967) is a sculptural object at the centre of the campus; its A-shaped concrete arches support a rectangular cooling tower. Mr. Wiens left the building’s steel skin unpainted, so that it acquired a brown patina. For the architect, this mass of weathered metal against the sky recalled grain elevators, “those distinctive landmarks of the Prairies” that, he wrote, “function as symbols and beacons, giving scale and a sense of place." The building won a national Massey Medal and then, in 2011, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Prix du XXe siècle.

Mr. Wiens was always interested in structure, a field of knowledge he began to explore while a boy. When designing, he once said, “I feel the beam bending, the wire stretching, the column quivering under load and the sway of it all in a heavy wind."

His buildings often made poetry out of novel structural techniques. The roof of his studio space on Albert Street in Regina, completed in 1970, was a ¼-inch plate of steel, a concave arch hanging from a frame of steel pipes. In 1969, he had completed another daring structure: Silton Chapel, a seasonal Catholic chapel in the Qu’Appelle Lakes region north of Regina. Four massive concrete columns support thick beams of glue-laminated wood, which make the form of a cross; atop these sits a pyramidal roof, open at the corners. This elemental shelter directs rainwater down into a baptismal font. It also works in tension with the four beams, thanks to a rod that descends from the top of the pyramid, pulling the whole thing together.

The architectural historian Bernard Flaman visited the chapel in 2015 and found that it was coming apart, the wood beams disintegrating from moisture because of a lack of maintenance. This failure of upkeep is typical for many of Mr. Wiens’s private projects, and indeed many other Modern buildings in Canada, even those by better-known architects. Mr. Wiens’s buildings “are all in danger,” Mr. Boddy said. “They’re all vulnerable.”

Mr. Wiens’s later career – as with many architects of his generation – was less colourful. The prosperity and the intellectual freedom of the 1960s gave way to more constrained circumstances. Yet he continued to build significant projects He practised with Ross Johnstone as Wiens Johnstone Architects from 1979 to 1986; the firm completed the Regina headquarters of the CBC. Mr. Wiens later wound down his practice, closing it in 1994.

He and his wife moved to Arizona, where Mr. Wiens taught architecture for two years, and then to Vancouver, where he continued to consult as a designer. Mrs. Wiens died there in early 2018.

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All six of their children, as adults, are engaged in creative professions, spanning cuisine, jewellery and dance. Ms. Poitras is the artistic and managing director of New Dance Horizons in Regina. Her brother, Nathan, is a designer and woodworker who runs Chapel Arts in Vancouver; he says his father had “immeasurable influence” on him. “He and my mother created a rich creative environment for my five sisters and myself,” he said. “He has been a tough act to follow, but he’s left me room to rise as my own man.”

Mr. Wiens’s reputation as an architect has not spread particularly widely – partly, Mr. Boddy suggests, because of his geographic isolation in Regina. Mr. Wiens’s work is included in most of the major historical surveys of Canadian architecture of the past 40 years, but Mr. Boddy believes it is underrepresented. “He was and remains one of the most undocumented of the geniuses of Canadian architecture,” Mr. Boddy says. “If the buildings are preserved, I think history will be very kind to him.”

Mr. Wiens leaves his daughters, Mieka Tomilin, Inga Wiens, Robin Poitras, Susan Wright and Lisa McNeil; son, Nathan Wiens; grandchildren, Leigh, Arran, Nolan, Kieran, Quinten, Arielle, Twyla, Avry, Sydney, Gabriel, Jeremy and Theodore; and brothers, Bert and Dale Wiens.

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