5468796's futuristic condo project on stilts makes space for parking under the belly.
The prairie stretches out seamlessly before me as I look through the glass walls of the new Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. Past the runways, long yellow grasses ripple in the breeze and wispy clouds drift across the sky. Inside, the blue, gold and white carpet riffs on the dominant colours of the landscape. In the soaring arrivals hall, where sky-blue LEDs rim the circular skylights, I pass a mother welcoming a returning daughter. "It's been too long," the mother admonishes. So it has, I think, as it's been more than a decade since I visited the Peg myself. And, as I'm soon to discover, the airport (designed by the Argentinian-American starchitect Cesar Pelli, in collaboration with Winnipeg-based David Essex) is just one playful part of the city's post-millennial makeover.
On my first morning in town, I jog toward the Forks, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers that shapes the downtown core. I'm shocked by the Great Pyramid scale of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights rising just beyond. One side is a series of stepped levels clad in yellowy, veined Tyndall stone, quarried nearby and used on Winnipeg's important buildings. On the other side, arc-shaped swathes of glass lead up to the Tower of Hope, which looks like a giant pilot light. Slated to open in 2014, the museum has been igniting many questions: Will architect Antoine Predock's building draw crowds to Winnipeg like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim drew them to Bilbao? Will media baron Izzy Asper's dream prove worthy of its $350-million-plus sticker price? Whatever the answers, the structure is not the only big architectural development poking the skyline; it's just the tip of the iceberg, which, come to think of it, is what it resembles.
Luckily, the museum I'm visiting today is open for business. Entering the new home of the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art on Portage Avenue is a bit like stepping through the looking glass. One of its designers – tall, fuzzy-haired Neil Minuk – is every bit the busy White Rabbit as he whizzes toward me, past a stack of 27 TVs showing dancers in Dalmatian-spotted bodysuits. The building is covered in industrial freezer panels and sliced diagonally by a ground-floor passageway. "We wanted all these diverse sightlines, like you have in a medieval Italian hill town," Minuk says, pointing out different vistas of colours that fade and brighten along hallways and staircases. "It's all about hybridity." Indeed, Plug In houses an odd collection of things: four cutting-edge galleries (where I catch a surrealist exhibit, largely by Royal Art Lodge members, on the subject of Winnipeg), Stella's Café @ Plug In, an art bookstore and the University of Winnipeg's business and economics faculties. From the gallery, you can see the backs of cooks working away in the café's kitchen. "We wanted everything exposed," Minuk says, gazing up at some ducts. "Because that's Winnipeg: direct, gritty."