What makes a great city ?
Listen to the titans of modernity such as Le Corbu or Niemeyeri and they’ll tell you it’s a city planned for grandiosity, monumentality, top-down efficiency, and an unsettling sense of placelessness, all sprinkled with an honesty of materialsii and minimalism of stylistic adornment. But (most) architects aren’t builders,iii and who asked the overgrown cartoonists anything, right ? We’d better ask the people who really know how the world works, democratically elected governments!
Blessedly, practical examples of these democratic nightmates have been few and far between and the odd one that’s managed to eke out something resembling an existence hasn’t had much of a leash to play with. So it is that Chandigarh, the result of post-partition Punjab’s efforts to build a new capital city ex nihilo, as well as Astana, Brasilia, and Canberra (in alphabetical order) are the exception rather than the rule. Thank Hashem! Even though individuals buildings in the post-post-modern/contemporary vernacular everywhere else besides are all too eager to adhere to Le Corbu’s rationalistic “machine for living” principles,iv the number of entire cities planned according to such idealistic (if incredibly intelligent) spew can be counted on a hand or two.
What makes a great city, as anyone who’s travelled a bit can tell you, isn’t a city planner as deity, but rather walkability, cleanliness of streets and air, architectural identity, quality of restaurants and accommodations, openness to visitors, and lack of corruption, among many other things that you’re invited to list in the comments. It probably goes without saying, but getting all of these boxes ticked in a cohesive and attractive manner is rare indeed.v Why should it be so hard ? For the simple fact that city-building, just like any other creation of culture, is a perilous task fraught with near impossibility at every turn.
It’s not for the faint of heart, this making great cities/cultures thing, but it’s usually plain to see within a day or two of visiting a new place if they’re getting it right or are at least on the right track, which brings us neatly to our subject today :
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Known variously throughout its history as “The Chicago of the North,” “Gateway to the West,” “Heart of the Continent,” “Bull’s Eye of the Dominion,” and perhaps more appropriately, “Winterpeg,” the provincial capital and for all intents and purposes the only city in Manitoba is home to some three-quarters of a million denizens. Winnipeg is also the only city of any size between Mississauga and Regina, and therefore the only city of any significance between Toronto and Calgary, a span of no less than 2`700 km. Big country, eh ?
Winnipeg is famous mostly for being the coldest major city in an already frigid country, while also being humid, fly-ridden, an economic snooze, home to an astonishing number of Natives, Jews, and other new immigrants,vi but also architecturally glorious and culturally on the up-and-up. Overall, its reputation is mixed at best, but could Ol’ Winnie be the most underrated city in Canada ? I spent a week there finding out!
It certainly has a bounteous turn-of-the-last-century architectural portfolio, so if you’re into that kind of thing, as I am,vii it’s easily worth the visit just to gawk at the droolworthy stonework, stunning terra cotta, and extensive use of the Canadian Shield’s finest homegrown materials. It’s right up there with Chicago.
So those are a few of the 100-plus-year-old gems, dating back to the days before the Panama Canal usurped Winnipeg’s importance as a trading hub in 1914 – not to mention the simultaneous and very much detrimental impact of other Canadian Prairie trading cities such as Edmonton and Calgary – but what a heyday Ol’ Winnieviii had, eh ? It enjoyed a full fucking generation of unbridled prosperity and still has the scars to prove it. That the city/province hasn’t had a meaningfully productive economy since, at least not to anywhere near the same degree, has made it something of a time capsule in a way matched only by certain corners of other major cities, but none at this scale.
But that doesn’t mean that Winnipeg has entirely stood still this last century, and in fact it appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance as we speak. With the recent return of the Winnipeg Jets hockey franchise to the city, a fairly serious few billions are being poured into the area surrounding the new arena to create a miniaturised version of Edmonton’s spangly new Ice District. Say hello to the new True North Square, set for occupancy in 2020!
I’d actually read about the TNS project before visiting but I had no idea how fast it was coming together. Between Perkins+Will, Architecture49, PCL, the Richardsons, and Mark Chipman, they’re not sitting around waiting for the world to come to them. Representing a very significant part of the biggest high-rise construction boom in Winnipeg since the 1970s, it’s actually a pretty incredible investment to make in what otherwise appears for all intents and purposes to be a dormant market. But hey, panem et circenses et class A mixed-use real estate, amirite ?
Other signs of life taken in during my stay included the rather lovely Jazz Fest in the heart of the slowly reviving Exchange District. Montreux it ain’t but on the 5468796-designedix main stage were a variety of very talented acts whose names meant nothing to me but who entertained me and the 500-strong crowd all the same. The Fest’s sonorous sounds echoed off the old bricks almost until midnight all week long.
Elsewhere in town, a new Bogota-esque Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systemx was being developed and, in concert with the typical Prairie summer road construction season being in full swing,xi jammed-up traffic six ways to Sunday and in so doing made the Uber-lessxii city feel busier and more hectic than it objectively is.
Because really, where are ‘Peggers actually going and what are they actually doing ? Who are they competing with, and for what ? Sure, there are 750k residents doing something, but it became all too clear in my interactions with a good number of them, as well as my own anecdotal reasoning, that the city/province as a whole no longer see itself in relief – in contrast – the way it did when it was “The Chicago of the North.” Where are its edges now ? What is its form and identity ? What is Winnipeg competing against on the regional stage, much less the world’s ? It’s not trying to outdo nearby cities the way Melbourne/Sydney, Rio/Sao Paulo, NYC/LA, Vancouver/Toronto, even Edmonton/Calgary are constantly measuring the size of their dicks against one another – pushing themselves and the all-important “other” harder and harder, higher and higher.
So what makes a great city and will Winnipeg ever be great again ? Well, what makes a great city, in addition to all the liveability things, is competition. After all, you don’t really know who you are until you know what you’re not. Without that essential tension, without that dynamic force shaping and reshaping every step forward, a culture of any sort is just adrift at sea with fancy baubles,xiii being mildly amused by them and then dying with regret thereafter.
As for Winnipeg, does it have the right ingredients to be great ? It has some of them, sure, but until it finds the hate in its heart, it’s going to continue to be a quiet, second-tier city nestled into the heart of a beautiful and nearly globally desirable country to live.
It’s not Alberta, but there are surely worse fates.
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- Niemeyer the architect of Brasilia is not to be confused with Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior the architect of Brasil’s current World Cup run. Just so we’re all clear. ↩
- Not necessarily a brutality of materials, now, but an honesty, yes. Speaking of brutality, although Le Corbu and Niemeyer are two of the fathers of the architectural aesthetic known as “brutalism,” did you know that the term has less to do with the english meaning of the word and so much more to do with the French word for concrete, ie. béton brut ? Well, now you do! The things you learn here, I tells ya. ↩
- Mr. Hotel Atrium, Atlanta’s John Portman, who passed away this past January at the age of 93, was a notable exception. ↩
- While the “machine for living” line is the most oft-quoted translation from Le Corbusier’s seminal Vers une architecture, he actually (or at least originally) said that “Une maison est une machine à demurer,” which is the more static and genteel description of a domicile, but would later be replaced by “habiter” in his writings, which was considerably more universal and in line with his utopian ideals. ↩
- Vancouver would be at the top of my list of cities that get it “right,” but I’m also fortunate enough to be able to afford that particular opinion. What would be on your list ? ↩
- Not that Natives are new immigrants. Calm down. But Jews ? Uhhh ya. I think that’s fair to say. ↩
- A more detailed catalogue of early Winnipeg architecture can be found here. ↩
- Oh, you thought Winnie The Pooh was named for something else ? ↩
- 5468796 is the name of a Winnipeg-based architecture firm, not a phone number. Though I suppose you could always try calling it and see what happens ? ↩
- For the record, I’ve vastly more in favour of BRT than the poorfag surface LRT tracks that Edmonton is currently laying. Y’see, Winnipeg had the advantage of being an economic zombie in the 1960’s and 70’s when Montreal and Edmonton were installing their underway metro systems so they have no temptation to expand those networks despite now being too poor to do so properly (ie. underground or raised skytrain-styles). So Winnipeg is doing what Bogota has done for almost two decades now : fast, flexible, cheap buses. It’s such a simple and cost-effective solution that it makes Edmonton’s recent forays into expanded public transit networks all the more obviously retarded. At least Montreal’s upcoming Metro expansion is a reasonable 5 km undertaking, not the insane-on-a-stick 27 km that YEG is hanging itself with. That being said, Montreal is spending $4 bn on just five stops compared to the 28 stops that Edmonton is building for half that price… ↩
- The joke-that-won’t-die is that there are really only two seasons on the Prairies : winter and construction season. ↩
- After waiting 45 minutes for a fucking cab once, I finally downloaded Tappcar, an Uber-lite, which worked wonders and saved my bacon from walking too many more miles in the 30C heat and humidity, at least during business hours when I was all dolled up in my bespoke wool suits and red bottomed shoes… ↩
- Winnipeg has some rather swishy medical facilities, all of which have surely been bought and paid for with Albertabux via “federal transfer payments,” ie theft from the industrious to the needy, but that topic’s been touched upon elsewhere. ↩