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A rendering shows architect Michael Maltzan’s vision for the proposed Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.Michael Maltzan Architecture

In the drawing, an Inuit elder stands in a modernist room with concrete floors and snowdrift-white walls. He is presenting a drum dance to a group of schoolchildren – lifting his arm to point to a carving on a pedestal and, beyond, through a window toward the Manitoba Legislative Building. In this place, Inuit culture has a view straight to the seat of power.

This is the new vision for the Winnipeg Art Gallery that's being designed by architect Michael Maltzan, together with Winnipeg's Cibinel Architects. A new 40,000-square-foot Inuit Art Centre will add on to the existing gallery, expanding the building and, as that drawing by Maltzan suggests, reaching deliberately beyond its walls. "Galleries are often interior spaces," Maltzan explains from his Los Angeles office, "but we are also looking for opportunities to create direct relationships between Inuit art and cultural practice, and the museum and the city."

The new wing will show off the institution's 13,000-piece collection of contemporary Inuit artwork, creating a glassed-in "vault gallery" that makes much of the collection visible from the lobby and, through the lobby's outer windows, from the street. On the upper levels, Maltzan's wing includes an expansive Inuit gallery of 8,000 square feet that will present works – generally very small carvings – in a novel fashion, in a room that hints at the vast horizons of the North.

The boldness of this gambit reflects an ambition shared by the museum's director, Stephen Borys. He spearheaded an open international design competition, and the gallery selected Maltzan "because he asked us some really hard questions," Borys says, sitting on a leather Eames chair in his office in the gallery's 1971 building. "Here is the world's largest collection of Inuit art, and here is the least visible of the three indigenous cultures in Canada. Most people will never see the context in which this art is produced, and Michael asked us, 'Can the WAG play a larger role in the community, beyond art for art's sake? Not just education, learning, but also exposure to a sense of geography, place, identity?'"

The new Inuit Art Centre will, Borys says, reorient the gallery's mission, including its workshop and educational programs for local schoolchildren, to place the Inuit collection on par with the rest of its (quite deep) holdings. That's an ambitious agenda for an art museum, and Maltzan may be the ideal architect to push it forward. Through his quarter-century career, he has balanced a deep interest in the arts with a sense of social responsibility. Even as cultural buildings have taken an outsize importance in the world of high architecture, he has remembered the much bigger world beyond the museum doors.

Maltzan, born in Levittown, N.Y., in 1959, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s to work for Frank Gehry, then a cult figure. He left after seven years as a hotly pursued young talent, and with the starchitecture boom of that decade he could have followed Gehry to glamorous cultural and residential gigs. While he won some of those – most notably MoMA Queens, the temporary outpost for New York's Museum of Modern Art, in 1999 – Maltzan did not build himself into a global brand. Instead, he remains focused on his home base of Los Angeles and on a range of projects, including civic infrastructure and affordable housing.

His longest ongoing project has been for Inner-City Arts (ICA), an education centre for public-school students located in Los Angeles's Skid Row area. Over 15 years, he has built a campus of buildings and courtyards there. He did not adopt the wild forms that Gehry favours; Maltzan has built an ascetic composition of stucco boxes that evokes the Portuguese master Alvaro Siza, a personal favourite of Maltzan's. The most obvious design move is that they are all white, to signal that graffiti and damage will be cleaned up. ICA isn't a fortress but an institution committed to conscientiously living with its neighbours.

Maltzan will bring that same spirit to Winnipeg. His new wing is very tightly designed, and the sequence of rooms will be powerful. But like the ICA buildings, it will be a sober form clad in a light-coloured material, likely steel. The wing will extend the gallery's 1971 building, an arrowhead-shaped monolith wrapped in pale Tyndall stone. The gallery sits on a triangular block, and the Inuit Art Centre will occupy what's now an area at the thick end, facing St. Mary Avenue, that's currently filled by a parking lot and a low-rise commercial building. Maltzan's building, an irregular mass with rounded "prows," fills out the block, complementing the geometry of Gustavo Da Roza's peculiar, powerful, late-modernist building. But the design also leaves irregular "crevasses" between the new and old buildings. It's a response, not an extension.

In this way, the design both marks and mends one of the tears in the fabric of downtown Winnipeg. Maltzan has thought deeply about the site on the edge of the historic downtown, and the civic presence of the existing museum; it has few windows. The new vault gallery can seen through the new glassed-in lobby from St. Mary Avenue. "Walking by or even stopped at the stoplight, you will see it," Maltzan says. "This work is not meant solely to be held in a dark vault but is a part of the daily life of Winnipeg."

This reflects the view shared by the architect, Borys and the gallery on how to approach Inuit works. The collection is split between carvings and works on paper; the carvings, largely in stone and ivory, have conventionally been exhibited as individual objects in small vitrines. Yet these works were made after 1950, and in dialogue with Southern Canada, some by artists who are still living. Just last month the gallery marked the death of the carver Kiugak Ashoona, whose work was the subject of a WAG retrospective show in 2010.

So why not present Inuit work as contemporary art, with all the curatorial freedom that that allows? Borys believes this conceptual shift, to integrate Inuit, Métis and First Nations into Canadian art, is inevitable.

The architect agrees, and this drove him – after a trip with Borys to Nunavut – to take a leap in designing the voluminous Inuit gallery. It is a conceptual integration of the Great White North with the white box. "In the same way a Richard Serra looks best in a factory, or a de Kooning looks best in a large-scale studio," he says, "I was interested in trying to see if we could make a gallery that would insinuate the type of light, the scale, of the places where the Inuit works were made."

But since the gallery is also two blocks from the Manitoba legislature, Maltzan's framing of the gallery on that corner – the space captured in that evocative drawing of the drum dance – is no accident. The goal, he says, "is not to isolate Inuit art, but to see it in relationship to a wider civic and political and urban practice." It's architecture that remembers the art, and the peoples, it is there to serve.

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