Pride of place

Antoine Predock's Canadian Museum of Human Rights towers over Winnipeg, a beacon for all it represents

Controversial but now a landmark for Winnipeg, Predock’s museum is like no other.
Controversial but now a landmark for Winnipeg, Predock’s museum is like no other. · Credit: CMHR

Iconic is an over-used word – we are now largely immune to it. Watching a building that is touted as iconic from the start of construction, it’s easy to be cynical, to ignore the design detail and thought involved. And even more so when the building also has its political detractors during construction, and constant sniping in the local press. The new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, the first Federal museum to be constructed outside the National Capital Region, has been mired in controversy and discussion from the start.

Antoine Predock of New Mexico – recently made an RIBA International Fellow – won an architectural competition in 2003 with a concept rooted in the earth and reaching to the sky, but construction and opening has been a long-drawn out affair. Its spiky outline has dramatically changed popular views of the city, and it is routinely shown in TV ice hockey coverage – no higher honour in Canada.

The building presents two different facades, one of curving overlapping layers of fritted glass, underpinned by a mesh of steelwork; and a Tyndall Limestone face, more akin to a mountainside. My favourite view is probably this aspect, where the stonework layers and planes overlap and climb up to where the glass Tower of Hope breaks through. You almost expect to spy a mountain goat or two.

The lit tower stands above the flat night time landscape.
The lit tower stands above the flat night time landscape. · Credit: CMHR

You enter between the gigantic ‘roots’ of the building, into a dark enclosed space in earthen colours, and heavy black steelwork evocative of the railyards that once occupied the site. The ramp ascends through levels of galleries, and contemplative spaces: a long gradual climb of stolen glimpses of internal spaces, and external views of the city. The ramps, mostly clad in beautiful backlit alabaster panels, change with your position, the light, and even the external weather. Many exhibition galleries are punctured by ramps passing through their space. You’d never tire of experiencing them.

  • Limestone meets steel as the engineering is celebrated.
    Limestone meets steel as the engineering is celebrated. · Credit: CMHR

The galleries, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, are as you’d expect, glaring reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, and uplifting stories of the people who push back. One that stands out is the ‘Examining the Holocaust’ gallery, with its ‘broken-glass’ theatre of dark metal work and angles, examining Canada’s own experiences with anti-Semitism.

But for me, the building is the star. The soaring glass atrium and balcony levels are a wonder of engineering – steelwork meets at impossible angles, massive masonry walls seem to hang in space, a cantilevered staircase gives a vertiginous experience for those energetic enough to avoid the elevator. Above it all is the Tower of Hope, a viewing level showing the city and the Forks, a meeting place for Aboriginal people for 5,000 years. 

Paul Clerkin is publisher of Archiseek.com