Winnipeg’s warming huts keep skaters warm

Up-and-comers and established architects alike contribute designs for the city’s artsy River Trail
Amy Rosen
Denise Medeiros and her daughter Taylor, 14, skate around the warming hut designed by architect Frank Gehry, entitled "Five-Hole" at the Forks on Sunday, January 29, 2012. (Photo by Marianne Helm for Maclean’s Magazine)
Hut three, hut four, hut five
Photograph by Marianne Helm

It was a gong show, in Paul Jordan’s words. More than two dozen architects landed in Winnipeg last week to build some zany huts for skaters. There was one made of rope and another carved from a single giant block of foam. Then there was Frank Gehry’s deconstructed igloo. The sun was beating down on the blocks of ice, made from distilled water and shipped from Montreal, and they were starting to melt.

“I’ve got 11 Czechs, two Norwegians, three Americans, two Israelis, two Germans, and more coming, so it’s like the United Nations here and they’re all building their crazy huts,” said Jordan, 56, the lead organizer of Warming Huts v.2012: An Arts + Architecture Competition on Ice. “It’s about as much fun as you can have.”

Five teams have been working on their creations at the Forks, where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet, a famous Winnipeg waterfront development that gets four million visitors a year. The warming huts are really unheated shelters, a place for skaters to get out of the cold, rest or to tighten the laces on their skates. They are also pieces of art. This week the teams began moving the huts onto the frozen river, where they will join winners from previous years with names such as Carcass, Apparition and Under the Covers.

Winnipeg has always had a funky undercurrent, with its visual artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians standing tall on the world stage. And now with Warming Huts, the city is showing that architecture is still an important part of its artistic fabric. In fact, there’s a growing body of architects who are trying to stay in the ’Peg and make a go of it; some 20 new firms have opened here in recent years. In 2009, a small group of young architects and artists led by Peter Hargraves of Sputnik Architecture pitched the idea of an exposition on ice. Hargraves was brought on to help produce the event.

“That first year it was a pure exposition,” Jordan explains, “just three local architectural firms.” The next year he invited architect Antoine Predock, who designed the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to do one “and he thought it was so much fun.” The exposition quickly morphed into a competition and along the way garnered international recognition.

Last year the competition received 140 responses from around the globe. This year three international huts were chosen from open submissions, one comes from an invited architect—this time it’s Frank Gehry—and one from a University of Manitoba competition. The whole idea is “that you mash up some of the best architects on the planet with some of the up-and-comers from all over the world, with local students,” says Jordan. “It’s a good way for the kids here to understand what it’s like to play with the big boys.”

The faculty of architecture at U of M carved a solid block of high-density foam to create Hothut. Grad student Paul Dolick, 26, was one of the project leaders of the team of 21 students and two faculty members. Back in November the group got together and dedicated a full day to hammering out ideas and turning them into models, most of which “could fit in the palm of your hand.” By the end of the day they had whittled 50 ideas down to three or four that captured the ideas they wanted to pursue. They ended up choosing the model that “allowed visitors to engage the hut and enjoy it wholeheartedly without being removed from the activities going on around them.” The carved foam, finished with a bright, red plastic coating, allows skaters to feel as if they’re inside and outside at the same time.

When it came time to build the hut, “we had what we thought was a foolproof plan,” says Dolick. They created a computerized 3D virtual model in measurements down to the millimetre. “All we were going to do was create templates that would guide us, using a hot wire with an electric current that cuts the foam like butter.” But when they realized they had just two days left “to pump it out” and that their carefully calculated templates would only slow them down, the team basically eyeballed it, outlined the openings with masking tape, and then attacked it with a chainsaw. They removed large chunks first, then went in and sculpted the openings to a smooth finish with the hot wire. In the end “we achieved that interior-exterior condition we were looking for that contributes to the warming hut being a social and cultural experience.”

Each of the huts, from the Gehry project to the U of M entry, has a $20,000 budget, which includes everything from materials to labour and travel. As for Frank Gehry’s involvement, “We wrote him a letter thinking we’d never ever hear back … and we didn’t,” says Jordan. Months went by without a response, so they began searching for a replacement only to get an email from the renowned architect saying it wasn’t something he would normally do, but he was intrigued and could they send him more information. They did and he said yes. “Apparently his love of hockey, ice and the intrigue of the frozen environment won him over,” says Jordan.

Five-Hole, the warming hut by Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners, is an abstract igloo made of crystal-clear blocks of ice. Gehry’s son, designer Sam Gehry, 32, was in Winnipeg for the build. “The inspiration was spraying ice. We do a lot of physical modelling in our office and we were playing around with blocks trying to get a mass we could work with, when we realized we all really enjoyed the block language.” From the blocks came the idea of an igloo-like hut with an open top. Gehry says the ice was made from double-distilled water because it is more structurally sound. “The foggier the ice, the more air there is in it and the more likely it is to shear and break if it gets too warm.” They also used some chunks of local Red River ice, “which look really great because they have this ephemeral feel to them, sort of blocky and broken pieces.”

Gehry’s Five-Hole interior, with its Douglas fir detailing, wooden benches and central firepit, contrasts sharply with its icy exterior. A crystalline structure by day, it becomes a lantern by night, drawing visitors in and marking a destination along the river trail. The firepit will be lit on special occasions and only under supervision.

Then there is the Polar Hen hut by the Mjölk Team from the Czech Republic. They connected a pump and sprinkler system to a generator and sprayed river water over air-filled silicone balloons to create egg-like pods. Once frozen, the balloon was removed and used to create the next one. The Czechs were the life of the party, with the group of enthusiastic young architects arriving to the build site in multicoloured capes, and challenging the rest of the teams to a “friendly” game of shinny on the river.

As for the hockey game, Sam Gehry says it was fantastic. “I’ve never played ice hockey outdoors, and definitely not on a frozen river, so it was a brand new experience for me, being from southern California.” The whole experience in Winnipeg was a great time, “and for me an eye-opener about a really great annual event where a bunch of architects come together.”

Winnipeggers can be forgiven if they tend to forget the magic of snow and ice. The river trail and the warming huts competition reinforce local pride in the city’s culture, while reminding Canadians that Winnipeg—often sarcastically referred to as Winterpeg in other parts of the country—is wonderful in winter. Most of the warming huts will return to the river each year, with the exception of a few that melted and a couple of more destroyed by arson. “We’ll have 11 out there this year. Now you can go for a skate and there’s a piece of art about every 200 yards,” says Jordan. “Over the coming years, as we get more and more of these huts, it’s going to be just a really crazy kind of skate.”