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Like the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, there's a compelling confluence of urban activists standing next to each other on the sidewalk of Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. To my right is a group of First Nations flood evacuees protesting (politely) against cuts to their daily living allowance. To my left, below the gleaming, mirror-polished aluminum balconies of the Avenue on Portage mixed-use development, two of the city's – and Canada's – most adventurous young architects, Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme, have gathered to guide a visiting architecture critic through nothing less than a triumph of transformative design.

Until recently, a reinvented pair of mid-size century-old buildings stood abandoned and derelict for a decade before being purchased by Winnipeg's Hofer Construction. A new entrance of glass wedged deep into the sidewalk now unites the pair of restored structures; and an aluminum canopy – as shiny as the apartment balconies cantilevered overhead – angles forward over the Portage sidewalk.

This is not the Winnipeg of brick and Tyndall stone you may recall from yesteryear. The Prairie city is being changed by its highly energized, collegial architects, who are demanding more from each other – and of architecture – than are many of their overworked colleagues in such capital-rich cities as Toronto and Vancouver. There have been 18 late-night critiques of design work in architect's studios; dozens of firms have participated in these "On the Boards" meetings, primarily younger architects who don't mind baring the intimacies of their proposed elevations, sections and floor plans to a gathered group of colleagues. Wine helps. So does the collective belief that an engaged design community can bring pride and new economic energy to the nation's geographic centre.

Let's not let Winnipeg's brilliant blue sky overly romanticize the moment: There is plenty of evidence in this city of hard economic times, a disenfranchised aboriginal community, and a gap-toothed urbanism marked most obviously by omnipresent parking lots.

But there's also a case to be made that a golden moment is now unfolding. Vancouver's Patkau Architects, led by design associate Gregory Boothroyd, have come back to their hometown to design the University of Manitoba's School of Art as a structurally robust gateway building for the campus in the city's south end. Although the 70,000-square-foot ARTlab connects heavy-handidly by an aluminum-clad walkway to historic Taché Hall, the just-opened School of Art gives Western Canada's oldest art-training facility some exhilarating and human-scaled interiors that invite students into sculpted stairwells, a national-standard art gallery, and corridors defined by compressed angles and reflected light.

Downtown, the University of Winnipeg has commissioned whip-smart local architects Peter Sampson and David Penner and artist Neil Minuk to design (for a painfully low budget of $210 a square foot) the vibrant Buhler Centre. Presented as a dynamic, cut-through white metal shed, it houses the influential Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art next to the humming Stella's Café and Bakery, with excellent, edgy art on its walls and Castor-designed tube lights suspended from its ceiling.

In the building's upper three storeys, classrooms and computer labs flow around a coloured atrium with its tight shaft of light. The building is clad in sandwich panels typically used in freezers (albeit here in an iridescent grey-white). And white metal tabs have been inserted on the facades; the LED version was too expensive. As cars zoom buy, their headlights actually seem to make the building wink. Done smart and on the cheap, this is design that redeclares a position for urban architecture at the yawning corner of Portage and Colony Street.

A commitment to building a culture to rival that of great design capitals around the world is the brazen ambition of the Winnipeg Design Festival, organized by Storefront Manitoba, where I recently gave the "super lecture" to an audience at the assertively modern Winnipeg Art Gallery, an event followed by a food-carted, DJed, late-night mash-up in the gallery's parking lot. Storefront Manitoba, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing public awareness of design, has just purchased a now-franchised idea from Montreal's Design Commerce, an organization that encourages and rewards innovative upgrades of storefronts.

"I think we are changing the city from the 1990s, when the economy was nosediving and very few in the design community came forward," Storefront Manitoba president David Penner told me during a tour of the city. "Now, there's a hunger for design that we have never witnessed before from developers, instituons and the public."

Radulovic and Hurme are doyens of black-chic, globetrotting urban style, the founding partners of the Governor General's Award-winning 5468796 architecture studio, and the curatorial masterminds, with colleague Jae-Sung Chon, behind Canada's official entry at the 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture. Their airy 11-person studio, with floor-to-ceiling white curtains and a suspended bubble chair, is where affecting gestures of urbanism are designed. Among them: the Cube public stage, at Old Market Square, which serves as a light-projection box; malleable performance venue; and tough, jewel-like architecture.

Enclosing the concrete structure is a metal membrane, fabricated by Central Prairie Products, part of a sophisticated Hutterite colony just outside Winnipeg where television is banned but BlackBerrys are A-okay. That exterior screen is composed of 20,000 interlinked hollow aluminum pieces held together on aircraft cables. Press your hand against it – and feel how it moves. Look through one of its perforations and see a dazzling display of gridded shadows on the concrete floor. The Japanese master of concrete and light, Tadao Ando, would be amazed.

The architects' Centre Village low-income housing project that we visited together, defined by 200 windows highlighted by bright orange frames, is providing some near-Mediterranean lightness and urban intimacy for its residents. In a neighbourhood where some people line up first thing in the morning at the beer store, the idea was to create as many eyes as possible on its courtyard and the surrounding streets. Many of the blinds on the inside of the windows are already ripped and crumpled – not exactly what the architects imagined with their well-intentioned capture of shards of light.

In Winnipeg, the new force field of fresh contemporary architecture cannot disguise the hard truths about the city. But the attempt is always worth daring.

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