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Bloc_10 condominiums, Winnipeg, designed by 5468796 Architecture

James Brittain

Canadian artists have often benefited from being on the margins. But while writers can gain wisdom from being away from the centre of power, architects lose out: When you are making buildings, it helps to have power (or at least money) close by.

So how did one of the most prestigious prizes in Canadian design go to a young firm from Winnipeg? That was the big surprise at this year's Governor-General's Medals for Architecture, when the collective 5468796 Architecture was lauded for a three-storey condo called Bloc_10. The project is a smart and unexpected twist on a familiar form: the walkup apartment building.

Speaking from their Exchange District office, two of the firm's architects, Ken Borton and Colin Neufeld, describe the project as blending matter-of-fact construction and intellectual ambition. "We said, let's take a box and make something interesting on the inside," says Mr. Borton. "It quickly took on this Chinese puzzle aspect." That's apt: The 10-unit building is a three-dimensional puzzle of remarkable complexity. From the outside it appears as an irregular stack of boxes – a sophisticated sculpture in glass, black-stained wood and creamy cement-board panels, the hunks of structure caroming their way from roof to ground.

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This alone makes the building special, and would do so even in Toronto or Vancouver, where ambitious architecture tends to live in high-end houses or highrise towers.

But at this building in the River Heights neighbourhood, there is much more going on under the surface. The 10 units are all different in size, shape and configuration, which produces some amazing statistics. Each unit has at at least two levels; each has windows on the north and south sides, and eight boast an east or west exposure as well. Eight of them touch a corner of the building. The layouts are extremely unusual. For instance, one two-bedroom suite starts with a north-facing kitchen, steps up to a second-floor living room on the south side of the building, and then third-floor bedrooms on the north side – and it's got outdoor decks to the north and south.

The trick is a central spine of nested staircases, running east-west through the building, that link the different levels of each apartment. It's a difficult design to understand at a glance, but it does use standard building materials and techniques – yet these homes all have qualities of light and space that are extraordinary in an apartment.

It's an impressive feat for a firm like 5468796, a collective of young architects that has been working together for only five years. "It's true," Mr. Neufeld agrees. "Architects that want to push the edge a little usually start with theoretical work and publications – but we've been doing it in the built world." The group has constructed a series of projects – all of them aesthetically bold – ranging from apartment renovations to houses, non-profit housing and multi-family buildings for commercial developers.

It's the latter, including Bloc_10, that have the most to teach city-builders across the country. The client for Bloc_10 is Greenseed Development Corp., led by the thirtysomething developer and real estate agent Mark Penner. He'd hired 546 for a previous project, YouCube – a formally complex and very poetic townhouse development that looks like nothing in town. It was a success, financially and architecturally, but one that sapped the developer's time and energy with fine-grained customization for each buyer. "Here he wanted something on a smaller scale, cheaper and easier to build," explains Mr. Neufeld. The idea was to build and sell quickly, presenting the units in a largely unfinished "white-box" state.

But, Mr. Borton says pointedly, "He said it had to be simpler to build. He didn't say it had to be less architecture or to do less." And the gap between what is required and what's possible is where 5468796 lives. They work very consciously to respect their clients' business realities, Mr. Borton explains, even helping them to radically shift their development plans – but they also provide unexpected formal and visual twists, employing a range of colours, materials and forms that evoke 21st-century London or Rotterdam. (Another example: a recent project, the conversion of two early-20th century loft buildings into apartments, preserves the old facades with a bold applique of grey paint and shimmering glass balconies. It's a very European approach to old buildings.)

"We have a never-quit attitude," Mr. Neufeld says, "to finding the best and most original solution."

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At Bloc_10, one of those solutions, usually frowned upon by the market, was locating corridors and walk-up entrances outside. This eliminates the need for a lobby or interior hallways, saving costs. But, Mr. Neufeld argues, it also fosters community. "You've got 10 doors on the street, and it ramps up a feeling of ownership. In this neighbourhood, one of the most coveted neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, and very single-family – this made it feel less like living in an apartment block."

Another, abetted by developer Mr. Penner, was the "white-box" approach, which also helped keep construction costs down to a very low $166 per square foot. The result, Mr. Borton says, "is very much 10 people and 10 different houses with 10 different lives. From an aesthetic point of view we they've made some choices we don't love; there's some shag carpeting in there…" Yet the architects do enjoy the variety of the spaces, which range from suburban-style kitsch to wood-heavy contemporary, and they include a home for a cookbook writer "who required a very intense kitchen."

This sort of flexibility may, paradoxically, be easier to achieve in Winnipeg than elsewhere. Mr. Borton and Mr. Neufeld agree that working in that city, which lacks the hyper-competitive real estate markets and high costs of Vancouver or Toronto, has been a boon to them: "When he came in, Mark [Penner] was a 27-year-old doing a condo on one of the best streets in town," Neufeld points out. But his bravery has paid off, with two gutsy projects (and a third on the way) that are setting a high bar. "We've heard that our architecture has opened the eyes of some of the city's other developers," says Mr. Borton.

And in the last year, 5468796 have been focused on an even bigger canvas than the city. The firm's Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic, along with their former University of Manitoba architecture professor Jae-Sung Chon, are co-ordinating Migrating Landscapes – the exhibit that will represent Canada at the prestigious 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture. It's been structured as a travelling competition, gathering student submissions on the theme of migration and home.

And 546's own work has them ready to look beyond Winnipeg for new challenges. "A mandate for the office is to energize the larger architectural discusson in the city and the country," Mr. Borton says. "We're really working to change the way people live," Mr. Neufeld says passionately. And don't be surprised if they build structures as big as their dreams.

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