An outlaw’s vision for the Museum for Human Rights

Controversy long dogged Canada’s human rights museum. And then Antoine Predock stepped in.

Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Before and during the construction of Winnipeg’s $350-million Museum for Human Rights, there was no shortage of negative reactions. Moe Levy, who heads the Asper Foundation and was the point man in his suit of armour, recalled one of the worst days, when then-prime minister Paul Martin pronounced the museum would get no more funding. Levy was so upset that when he went for his evening swim, instead of his usual 60 laps, he forgot to stop and, finally, about to grow gills, had to be fished out by the lifeguard after 200 laps.

Now that the museum has, in fact, been built, its architecture is bound to trigger lively debate. For instance, what does Antoine Predock, an outrageously outspoken architect from New Mexico, have against straight lines? You won’t find one more than 30 cm long in this impressive oddity of a building. (“I don’t like linear points,” says he. “I like episodic, choreographed movement where you’re continually exposed to different conditions of space and light.”) The dozen galleries of exhibits, their walls clad in native limestone, are stacked like rock faces, parading in vertical cadence. Even the prevailing climate, wind direction and sun patterns in the places depicted are factored into Predock’s designs. Before you get down to seriously designing, he has preached, “you have to experience the site with your body.”

Recognized as one of architecture’s most daring planners and executors—his projects include everything from the Albuquerque Museum, to the Inn at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., to the San Diego Padres Petco ballpark—Predock is even more one-off than his building. He once described himself as “so obsessive about my work, I know I’m close to being clinically insane, at times. I’m sure I am. But it’s working for me.” Right. His architecture is more art than science, an outgrowth of his considerations of how Mother Earth connects with humanity. In assessing his work, visitors must never forget that Predock knew exactly what he intended: to build a museum that would be like no other. He has achieved precisely that, and more.

Predock in person? Just make sure you call him Antoine. “Yeah, well, look: My father’s name was Antoine also, but he was called Tony,” he explained. “And he called me Tony Junior, but that didn’t fit the circumstances. So I went back to my full first name, Antoine.” No Tony Junior could have invented such a boffo silo, reaching for the stars.

We know now how difficult this project turned out to be. The museum’s foundations sit on limestone and unpredictable layers of clay interspersed with silt, sand, toxic methane gas deposits and, in the rare instance, an underground river. Above ground, there was a small mountain of discarded McDonald’s wrappers, blowing in the wind. “It was a miracle something could be built here,” Predock admitted during construction.

Antoine Predock strikes one as the reincarnation of an Aboriginal medicine man, dispensing wisdom and advice. Architecture magazine (now called Architect) described him as “the outlaw of American architecture. Where others in his profession are cool, urbane and cerebral, he is physical and intuitive, a whirling force of nature.” Born in the Ozarks, of possible Quebecois ancestry on his father’s side, he has spent his adulthood deep in the heart of the New Mexican desert popularized by the iconic American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Every Predock building fits neatly into its topography. His designs snuggle into the folds of nature’s rough surfaces and are built less to appear distinctive than to look compatible in their settings. To enter his new museum, visitors must find their way through four gigantic stone arms, calibrated to block northern and northwestern winds, and descend below ground level. This connection is a dramatic curtain raiser for a riveting climb that climaxes in the “Tower of Hope.” While the building’s gossamer-sheathed structure is the equivalent of 12 storeys, the tower raises the view an extra 12 floors and encloses a glassed-in viewing platform. It has the aura of a luxurious lighthouse, a beacon to celebrate Canada’s respect for diversity and personal responsibility. At its peak, it will top 100 m and sit on the tower’s glass “cloud,” which suggests doves’ wings wrapped protectively around one another.

Predock’s design exudes improvisation of the highest calibre, reminiscent of a Miles Davis jazz solo—made up on the spot, but containing predetermined rhythms and harmonics that give it gravitas delivered with a beat. Like that emotionally driven trumpet player, the architect integrates body and soul in his designs. “There is a realm of translation from research to the project [and] you can’t explain how it happens—it’s kind of supernatural,” Predock admits. “You want to leave it alone and not try to rationalize, but it has an aura of magic and alchemy.”

Predock’s CV occupies 48 single-spaced pages and makes you wonder whether he ever took time to sneeze. By the numbers, he has: won 84 awards for his architectural projects, including the prestigious American Institute of Architecture Gold Medal; exhibited pages out of his sketch books at numerous galleries and at the Venice Biennale in 1996; taught at 14 universities, including a stint at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

His studios, where everything happens, are in the old town quarter of Albuquerque, N.M., where Predock employs a dozen architects. His studio is a huddle of huts and work stations, second-generation helpers and ongoing projects. The working areas resemble the jumble of the movie set for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Martin Heidegger explained that the significance of our dwellings on Earth must be understood in relation to “the primal oneness of earth and sky”—Earth as “the serving bearer, blossoming and . . . rising up into plant and animal”; sky as “the vaulting path of the sun, the course of the changing moon, the wandering glitter of the stars . . .” That’s a pitch not likely to be used by your average Remax sales agent, but it goes to the heart of this unusual architect’s operational code. He crossed Europe from Paris to Istanbul by motorcycle, studying various cultures; he studied painting and drawing and co-directed a dance company along with Metropolitan Opera dancer, later choreographer, Jennifer Masley, who became his first wife and muse. “Watching Jennifer,” he says, “I started to think about the choreography of architecture, which is a processional event—an accumulation of vantage points.” He has subsequently been married to the sculptor Constance DeJong for 25 years. Their work shares geometric similarities, but what he finds most inspirational in her sculptures and drawings is a deeper content that doesn’t depend on literal representation. “I think of real architecture as an adventure, extremely physical but mostly informed by spirit,” he reflects. “I would place architecture more here [pointing to his heart] than here [indicating his head].

“Architecture is a ride,” he maintains. “The idea of a motorcycle in the landscape confirms a kind of closure for me, a technological, experiential closure.” The collection of a baker’s dozen of motorcycles that occupy the studio is his hobby. It features a ’51 British-built Black Shadow Vincent. That weird-looking contraption is, arguably, the most radically designed racing machine. Instead of being built around a frame, it uses the engine as its main support system. You can do repairs by taking off parts that turn into tools; flip a wheel over to change the gear ratio. It is one of the fastest production motorcycles ever built, having been clocked at 255 km/h, though, to achieve that speed, its daredevil driver had to lie straight across the seat with legs pointing backward, dressed only in a bathing suit, to reduce the wind drag.

Predock’s projects are known for being site-specific, which sets up tensions between the workshops where they are conceived and the widely varied locations where they are built and utilized. As a human rights museum, the Winnipeg museum had to be designed with a global reach, keeping in mind that its contents must resonate with cultures that often have little in common except discord and suspicion.

Its architect is as unpredictable as a lone wolf howling at a purple moon, situated at the head of his pack, but always looking behind him. Both hated and loved, Predock is, most of all, envied. Money-minded he certainly is, but there is a part of him nobody can buy. In an occupation that requires pleasing clients with peculiar assignments, he retains his own pride and prejudices. Whatever he does next, he’s a remarkable artist who has given us his most evocative creation.

This is an edited excerpt from the book Miracle at the Forks: The Museum That Dares Make a Difference, by Peter C. Newman and Allan Levine, forthcoming from Figure 1 Publishing Sept. 20.

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