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This freelancer’s tangentially related musings on the fields of architecture, landscape architecture & urban design. Useful sometimes. Acerbic always.

Other writings: City Blogs / Urban Nature

Manitoba Hydro & The Bilboa Effect

On Wednesday evening Jed and I met up at the Guggenheim Lab in Prenzlauer Berg for a roundtable discussion with architect Bruce Kuwabara from KPMB in Toronto. 


Being the social hermit crab that I am, and tending to be slightly bored and at the same time annoyed by archi-speak, I initially tried to use the rain as an excuse not to show up. Eventually I did make it though and I'm really glad I did. The table held about 20 people and included Tom Akerstream from Manitoba Hydro and Thomas Auer from Transsolar. Jed and I are both almost positive that Thomas Auer gave a lecture at Dalhousie about a project done in collaboration with Lydon Lynch, but who knows.


Onto the good stuff.


This is the new Manitoba Hydro Building in Winnipeg. 

Manitoba Hydro Building. A huge deal for climate-design and architecture in Canada.

Manitoba Hydro Building. A huge deal for climate-design and architecture in Canada.

See the project info here.




Bruce Kuwabara (henceforth known as BK) started out giving a little background about Winnipeg as a city, from the early 20's til now. From the images shown, it looks like it was well on it's way to becoming (as BK called it) the Chicago of Canada. I always find it fascinating to see what cities were like pre-war, as it seems like there was a huge ideological shift for society from the cities they were used to as immigrants from Europe (dense, active urban centers) to the new North American ideal (backyards, garages, a television and a climbing tree for all!)


As you've probably predicted, Winnipeg fell into the typical cast of a mid-size North American city. Suburbs sprang up and spread out, downtown became the modernist showpiece with concrete highrises and wide streets, and life basically decentralized. 


Manitoba Hydro


Manitoba hydro approached their new building project with a long shopping list of what they wanted to accomplish. Given the typology of office towers in Canada, the fact that they even had a list of things they wanted to accomplish (outside of making a profit) is incredible.


Part of the stipulation of being able to build a new 'headquarters' was that they had to build it downtown. At the time, most of the employees were working in smaller offices in the suburbs of Winnipeg, and no one wanted to move to an office downtown. That is how bad the perception of downtown is in Winnipeg.


The company wanted to use IDP (Integrated Design Process) to fulfill their set of goals. I find this incredible again, because for most people the thought of getting climate engineers, structural and mechanical engineers, architects, interior designers, politicians, and business men in the same room and asking them to AGREE on something sounds like a complete impossibility. But this is what they did, and it worked.


They had to import a team of climate engineers from Germany because that discipline doesn't even exist in Canada. Sad, isn't it.


Here is what they accomplished:


  •  In an extreme Canadian climate they have a building that uses fresh air ventilation and a solar chimney to get 100% fresh air, 24/7. That means that an office tower is completely naturally ventilated, summer and winter.
  • They wanted to achieve 70% reduction in energy consumption compared with a normal office tower, and they have not only reached that reduction goal, they've surpassed it (regular office tower uses about 500kWh per square foot, this building uses 85kWh!!!)
  • They've created a public podium on the ground level which has created new public space which actually gets used. The influx of 2000+ employees to the downtown of Winnipeg has had benefits for businesses in the area. Manitoba Hydro subsidized bus passes for their employees and now 74% of their employees take the bus to work! They only installed 150 parking spaces for a building with a capacity for 3000 people. 




Here are some points raised in the discussion that I thought were worth sharing.


In most offices downtown, you drive into the parking garage, never leave the building, and contribute nothing to the public life of the city except traffic. In this building, because of the huge amount of public space that was designed into the building, people are constantly using the area around the building and inhabiting the ground level instead of staying inside.


In Germany, there is a bylaw that states that a worker must be no further than 7m from a window. In Canada there is no such bylaw, so employees often end up in the central core of a building where they are 15m or more from a window. Windows are for the higher-ups. In this building, every single employee has a window seat (access to a window within 7m). The building was designed with the employees in mind.


The discussion was centered around the Bilbao effect, which makes specific reference to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. After this building was constructed, it had a huge impace on the way architects designed and how cities looked at their cultural icons. Suddenly, every major city wanted a 'guggenheim museum' - a building that would be a sculpture, an icon, a visitor attraction, a representation of the region. City councils allocated millions of dollars to constructing single buildings that they felt would encapsulate the heart of their city and become a worldwide symbol, as the Guggenheim in Bilbao was. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain.


One of the architects present asked the room how many people had been to visit the Guggenheim Bilbao. About half the room raised their hands. Then he asked how many had been there more than once. No one raised their hand. He pointed out something that most people miss when they talk about iconic architecture: it is just that, a single icon, a single use building, a single monument. It is not a place you can go back to over and over. The residents of Bilbao do not go to the museum all that often.


Not as much as they go the park, for example. Or the local cafe.


Over the years, architects have definitely played into the role of genius designer, able to provide each and every city with their own cultural icon. But how many have stood up and said that rather than use their money on an iconic building, cities should focus their efforts on creating a city that has a high quality of urban public space? Maybe cities should care more about getting put on the map for urban life and quality of life rather than a single building.


While North America is struggling to get to the point where people actually engage in their cities and use public spaces (and for more than just drug dealing or sexual assault in public parks...) Matthias Sauerbruch from Sauerbruch Hutton pointed out that Europe faces a different kind of problem of public space. And that is 'what makes a public space truly vibrant?'


Even though North America is always looking to Europe as a prime example of lively streets and well used public spaces, we have our own set of problems. For example, what is the difference between the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin and Hermannplatz? Gendarmenmarkt is a square in the mitte, where tourists go to look at the historic buildings. Hermannplatz is a square in Neukoelln, where people use it as a part of their daily life. Hermannplatz not scenic by any means, but it is a 'true' urban space, whereas the Gendarmenmarkt is like a simulacrum of city life; nothing 'real' happens there; it is inhabited by tourists, not residents. It is used the way public space is 'idealized' as being used: street cafes, historic monuments, beautiful trees. That doesn't make it a 'vibrant' urban space, however.


Or does it?


The discussion moved back towards the impact that this single building has had on Winnipeg and the residents. The question was raised of how this has impacted other companies in Canada. Do they look to this building as an example of what could or should be done? As a new benchmark? Or will they keep on going with developers to "design" their offices? 


Tom Akerstream (from Manitoba Hydro) said that they faced just such a problem while planning their tower. A developer came and told them they could build the tower for half the cost in half the time. For a private company who really only thinks about short term profitability, it's a lucrative deal. And this is indeed how it works most of the time. There is no real thought given to what will happen when the main tenants of an office building move out. Most office towers are not owned by the companies that inhabit them, they are owned by a development firm that only has 'rentability' in mind. 


The difference with this building was really the strong foresight of the people at the top levels of management at Manitoba Hydro. These are the same people who started an energy saving campaign 20 years ago, seemingly against their own interests. They truly wanted a world class building, and that meant having a building that was built with the people who use it and the environment in mind.


One final point on this topic. In Berlin it seems like the city planners are taking the 'safe' route all the time. They choose the buildings that will be as 'safe' as possible. One example is the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss here in Berlin. This was the winter residence of the Kings of Prussia, and was demolished after heavy bombing in the second world war.


After reunification in the 90's, it was decided to rebuild the Stadtschloss. At the moment it is a huge open space in the very center of Berlin, near the Alexanderplatz. There is no reason to spend 1 billion euros on a rebuilding, this could very well be a park, housing, or something different (still cultural).


But they will build the Stadtschloss because everyone who comes to Europe wants to see old buildings. This is how they've approached their entire rebuilding scheme in Germany since the war: just make it exactly how it used to be instead of how it could be in the future. It's safe because it is something people know, something people understand. But it is deadening the cities... if you constantly look backwards, there is no room for growth forwards.


I say, accept the end of this building and spend 1 billion euros on improving the bike lanes and small scale urban spaces in Berlin. That would have a real, measurable impact.