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Since coming into existence just seven years ago, the Winnipeg firm known as 5468796 Architecture – 546, for short – has been deluged by awards, honours, fellowships and favourable write-ups in the building art's national and international press.

The busy office run by co-founders Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic is widely regarded as Canada's premiere emerging architectural practice – even though its designs have been realized, up to now, no farther than a stone's throw from the intersection of Portage and Main.

So what is the fuss all about? Toronto's architecturally savvy citizens have a very good chance to find out, now that the exhibition T412 has opened at the University of Toronto's Eric Arthur Gallery.

Using models, texts and images, this intense, little show tells the stories of 12 multifamily residential projects by 546. Each one is either finished or under way on an urban corner. No architectural fantasies or follies are featured here, as enjoyable and provocative as such things can be. These are buildings for the real world.

In fact, the world doesn't get much more grittier, in urban Canada anyway, than the sites 546 has been asked to design housing for. They include oddly-shaped nooks and crannies in Winnipeg's grid, the edges of industrial areas, high-crime neighbourhoods, streets owned by sex traffickers. The typical combination of difficult locale and tight budget – the clients are often non-profits or public agencies – would seem to invite, almost inevitably, residential designs that are very ordinary.

But 546 is different that way. As we learn from this display, the office is willing to tackle challenges of every sort – financial, regulatory, physical – and to do so with high-voltage imagination that some architects would expend only on top-end assignments.

Take, for example, Welcome Place, a 23-unit block that offers transitional shelter to freshly landed refugees from parts of the world afflicted by violence and strife. (Interestingly, the client was the same not-for-profit group that housed Radulovic after he fled to Winnipeg from war-torn Yugoslavia.)

For a project cost of $152 a square foot, the firm has fashioned a very fresh, pertly modernist building that speaks eloquently of both newness and protection. Irregularly scattered, deeply inset openings punctuate and animate the boxy structure's white skin, providing views to the outside world and (because the windows are small) privacy for those who dwell within.

A glass box was certainly not wanted here; neither was anything explicitly institutional or barracks-like. 546's Welcome Place is a sound solution: an intelligent, briskly contemporary expression of the client's compassionate program.

Like the 11 other residential works showcased in Toronto, Welcome Place also argues the important point that a shortage of dollars (on the part of either clients or customers) need not be an obstacle to excellent design.

For prices starting at around $130,000, a low-income family can buy a single- or two-level apartment in 546's Ross Condominiums, a handsomely thought-out and finished development in a rough part of town. This cluster of jauntily peaked-roof structures is costing $155 a square foot to build.

The award-winning Centre Village, a smart, artistically notable public housing complex in a shabby inner-city neighbourhood, cost just $137 a foot. And a Winnipeg non-profit is paying not much more – $169 a foot – for the formally inventive building called New Directions, a home and support centre for young people looking for a way out of the city's flesh trade.

This show suggests that the architects at 546 are managing to create low-cost, high-quality designs for their clients by investing their considerable talents heavily on the artistic end, while proposing execution of their schemes by the least expensive, simplest means available in Winnipeg. Their formally imaginative works are commonly wood-framed and clad in quite ordinary construction materials. Impressive surfaces turn out to be fashioned from garden-variety stuff.

Renderings of a seniors' residence called Hedge, for instance, show the building ($168 a square foot) with a complex skin that certainly looks deluxe. But, as it happens, this rich surface patterning is a bit of sorcery with everyday materials. Sheets of common Corten steel will be covered by layers of chain-link fencing, then evergreen ivy will be trained to grow up the mesh. If all goes according to plan, this union of bright green ivy and ruddy, weathered metal should be as beautiful as it is inexpensive.

Such interesting moves, however, could expose 546 to a certain danger in the long run: that of being doomed to do multifamily residential projects that tend to be low-budget affairs.

It is surely high time for a developer (perhaps outside Winnipeg, for a change) to give 5468796 Architecture a chance to do a big-ticket item – if only so we can see what this gifted office does when it's allowed to spread its wings.

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