When we look at a building critically, we pay attention to it as a three-dimensional object, assessing its form, scale, materials and details, and inherent esthetic qualities.
An aspect of architecture which is often overlooked, yet one that’s critical to the success of any project, is the relationship of the building to its surroundings – how it contributes to the comfort and pleasure of those who pass around it and through it.
Relatively few buildings succeed in making a contribution as good neighbours in the city.
And when a significant building project makes a corner of our city a better place there is some cause for celebration.
We have such a building in Winnipeg. It has been completed and occupied for some time, and has enriched the lives of those who work in and around the Health Sciences Centre. The building is the Earle and Marion Brodie Centre and John Buhler Research Centre. It was completed in 1996, and designed by Friesen Tokar Architects, GBR Architects and Smith Carter Architects and Engineers.
To some extent, the centre’s resulted simply from the good luck of being a large building in a cramped site at a T-intersection (at Emily Street and McDermot Avenue). These factors forced the designers to fill the site and to create a defined public space where the two streets meet.
But they went beyond a mundane interpretation of “function” and treated the social and esthetic needs of the building as requirements to be satisfied.
The most notable feature of the building is a large, glass-covered atrium. It is located right at the intersection of the two streets, and performs two almost contradictory, functions as it sits at the north end of Emily Street. The glass façade of the atrium is a wall of the public space – it defines the public domain. Yet because it is transparent, it invites users into the space beyond.
The tower portion of the building lies off-centre from the axis of Emily Street; it can be seen (though not easily) from the south, and becomes really visible only as one reaches the intersection. It’s a handsome element, with a simple richness of form, and with a “mini-tower” of glass-clad lounges rising at its south end. The less-pleasant servicing realities of the building are in the east of the main building, and have little impact on the street.
We often speak of a “European” sensibility in the making of cities.
Greek villages, mediaeval towns and large older cities like London and Barcelona are seen by architects and tourists who love cities as the “right” way to build. The sequence of spaces along Emily Street and McDermot Avenue gives up nothing to these classic examples of good urban space-making.
Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, December 20, 2003