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Serena Keshavjee

e-dition - November 17, 2006

Winnipeg's Modernist Architecture:

Preserve & Protect

Not many are fortunate enough to work within a piece of art, but to Serena Keshavjee it’s a daily pleasure.

Well-known amongst aficionados of architecture as a landmark building of the modernist style, Centennial Hall is a proud centerpiece of The University of Winnipeg. Keshavjee, UWinnipeg Assistant Professor/coordinator of Art History, describes it as a living and functioning piece of practical art, a vitally important example of its period that mirrors the famous late modernist architecture style of the French museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou. “I think Centennial Hall is one of the most important buildings in Winnipeg,” says Keshavjee, praising the building that acts as a hub for the UWinnipeg campus.

In its original conception, Centennial Hall looked like a glass-walled warehouse. “You were meant to see from the street what was going on inside; the glass represented the University's openness and the space was inviting,” says Keshavjee, adding the exposed and vibrantly painted ventilation system and trusses were an integral element of the design. “Centennial Hall is a thriving miniature city within a city. The corridors were called streets.” Sections of Centennial Hall have been filled in to accommodate a growing student body, but its unique style and prominent features—such as its well-known spiral staircases, artworks unto themselves—are still to be seen.

Winnipeg Modern, Architecture 1945-75

Keshavjee’s research into Centennial Hall was recently published as part of a book on Winnipeg's Modernist architecture. Winnipeg Modern, Architecture 1945-1975 was edited by Keshavjee, and designed by Herbert Enns, Director of the School of New Media Studies at the University of Manitoba. “Modern architecture did away with columns and pediments—it’s all very plain with a lot of steel and glass—and it started making use of new technologies and new industrial products.”

In Winnipeg, Modern architecture found a great outlet during a flurry of construction that took place in the 1960s. “When I came to Winnipeg 10 years ago from Toronto I knew Winnipeg had historical architecture in the Exchange District, but no one had told me about the Modernist architecture. I was floored by the quality and quantity of it,” says Keshavjee.

'Amazing' stock of modernist building

And she was amazed that no one had historicized Winnipeg's "amazing stock of modernist buildings"  until Winnipeg Modern, Architecture 1945-1975, which also included an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Published by University of Manitoba Press, the peer-reviewed book includes eight critical and historical essays on the aesthetic and social project of Modernist architecture in Winnipeg.

Archival hotographs by well-know photographer Henry Kalen highlight historical examples of Winnipeg's Modernist cache such as Manitoba Health building on Empress Street, the Winnipeg International Airport and the Canadian Red Cross building on Osborne Street. As well, photographer Martin Tessler was commissioned to capture current examples of modernist architecture that are dot Winnipeg's architectural landscape.

With a goal of preservation, Keshavjee says public input and awareness are keys to her work. “As Winnipeg enters its next building boom, we are starting to knock down important buildings,” she says. “The Red Cross building on Osborne Street was part of an ensemble that was the longest set of Modernist buildings left in a row in North America,” says Keshavjee, describing an edifice now renovated. “Every period has examples of good and poor quality design, now that Modernism is part of our architectural heritage, we need to decide what we’re going to preserve and what we’re not of Modernist buildings." 

< Back to e-dition November 17, 2006 - Volume 24 Number 8