Week Twelve, or Rethinking Reuse

Hudson’s Bay Company store, Winnipeg, 1939. [Hudson’s Bay Company Archives,  Archives of Manitoba]

While in quarantine, my neighbors and I lived on our balconies. We worked there, changed diapers there, ate meals there, did aerobics there — at one point I made a film and projected it for my neighbors there. In the eleventh week of this year, our balconies were for out-of-season sports equipment and a secret smoking habit; by the twelfth week they had become the most valued space in our small Oslo apartments. As the required distance between us has expanded, the space we can occupy has shrunk. As such, our limited spaces have adapted to fulfill the requirements of our pre-COVID lives.

Places beyond our personal homes have been adapting too: an exhibition center became a hospital, beaches were restricted, subway stops fell silent.1See “Coronavirus: How NHS Nightingale was built in just nine days,” BBC (April 17, 2020); Nick Paton Walsh, “World-famous beach emptied by coronavirus,” CNN (June 1, 2020); “Coronavirus News: NYC subways shut down for overnight cleaning,” ABC7 (May 6, 2020).

The adaptation that we have seen in our homes and cities in response to COVID-19 raises questions about how we perceive reuse.

Architects plan, draw, budget, script, score, anticipate — but during the emergency, the process has suddenly changed. All our efforts to achieve the perfect hallway dimension, sound insulation, window detail, or material palette are no longer important. Use and speed are our new priorities, and we must adapt to work with what we have. Things become other things.

This is not an essay about how to respond to COVID-19 architecturally. This is an essay about places that must adapt to sudden change; it is about the architect’s role as an anticipator and a responder; it is about designing a foundation that can support adaptation; it is about the qualities that allow places to be used and reused. The adaptation that we have seen in our homes and cities in response to COVID-19 raises questions about how we designers perceive reuse.

Does the adaptation of a purpose-built building reflect the failure of the original purpose or the achievement of the evolving building?

At the center of North America, at the center of Canada, and at the center of Winnipeg sits an under-used neoclassical department-store building. It was constructed by the Hudson’s Bay Company as its Canadian flagship in 1926. The structure is ubiquitous;  if you have been to Chicago, Portland, or Vancouver, you have seen something equivalent. However, the HBC building is constructed of almost entirely local materials, wrapped in over 3500 cubic meters of Tyndall stone. The fossils of gastropods, brachiopods, trilobites, corals and snails decorate its façade. These creatures transformed over the last 450 million years only to be sectioned in the 1920s by a saw the size of my balcony.2The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur-trading business founded in 1670. In the 19th century it evolved into a retail company, and by the 20th century it was an international retail giant. In its heyday, the building housed 650,000 feet of retail space, including stores, restaurants, and a museum. See 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 18.

Construction of the Hudson’s Bay Company store, June 4, 1926. [Hudson’s Bay Company Archives,  Archives of Manitoba.]

Massive in both scale and construction, the building was designed to expand even further. The six-story structure has the capacity to stretch to ten, making the version that exists today thoroughly overbuilt.3See 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 18. Though the architects designed the building with change in mind, it was growth and not disuse that they anticipated. Despite this effort in making the building adaptable, it remains “unusable.”4Martin Cash, “How low can it go? Downtown Bay appraised at $0,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 20, 2019.  Its design is at the heart of the problem. Its grand scale and significant history earned heritage designation in 2019, protecting the building from demolition, but its form and structure mean that it is difficult to fit to contemporary needs.5See City of Winnipeg, Historical Resources By-Law 55/2014 as cited in: 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 1. In recent years, four institutions, including the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the University of Manitoba, have explored the possibility of adapting the building, but all have deemed it unfit for their uses.6Chris Wiebe, “Winnipeg’s iconic Hudson’s Bay Company building gains heritage status, but city wrestles with its future,” National Trust for Canada (May 2, 2019). Despite institutions’ desires to expand, the local affordable-housing shortage, and the downtown food desert, the HBC building has no future occupant in view.7See Lissie Rappaport, “Keeping Winnipeg Affordable,” Canada Center for Policy Alternatives, December 2018; Katie Nicholson and Jacques Marcoux, “Buying groceries is a long trek for family in Winnipeg food desert,” CBC (December 2, 2015).

Hudson’s Bay was designed with change in mind, but it was growth and not disuse that had been anticipated.

When a building’s primary use is no longer feasible, perhaps there is something we can learn from the way it has been appropriated for secondary purposes. In 2017, Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art occupied unused regions of the HBC building for their inaugural STAGES biennial.8See “Stages: Drawing the Curtain,” Plug-In ICA, 2017. Toril Johannessen exhibited on the fourth floor and Krista Belle Stewart exhibited work in the basement, which also hosted a gala fundraiser. The biennial brought hundreds of people into the building and proved that it could adjust to new purposes.

When a building has accomplished its task but not lived out its life, we must be able to adapt it to new uses. The HBC building should be an example of such a transition done with ease — the structure is intact, the location is exceptional, and the price is dirt cheap — but the built-to-last building still has no defined future.9Cash, “How low can it go? Downtown Bay appraised at $0.” We know that, financially, the building is a liability; historically, the HBC is problematic; architecturally, the building is restrictive. However, despite the complexities of the site, we have a responsibility to use the building mass we inherit. We must devote space in education to the challenges of adaptation and reuse; we must have a profession that can respond to these situations. This moment in time has forced us to invest in the places we occupy. Suddenly, we have one room — and one balcony — and we must make them work. Perhaps it is time for a scrappier approach to architecture.

Notes

  1. See “Coronavirus: How NHS Nightingale was built in just nine days,” BBC, April 17, 2020; Nick Paton Walsh, “World-famous beach emptied by coronavirus,” CNN, June 1 2020; “Coronavirus News: NYC subways shut down for overnight cleaning,” ABC7 (May 6, 2020).
  2. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur-trading business founded in 1670. In the 19th century it evolved into a retail company, and by the 20th century it was an international retail giant. In its heyday, the building housed 650,000 feet of retail space, including stores, restaurants, and a museum. See 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 18.
  3. See 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 18.
  4. Martin Cash, “How low can it go? Downtown Bay appraised at $0,” Winnipeg Free Press (November 20, 2019).
  5. See City of Winnipeg, Historical Resources By-Law 55/2014 as cited in: 450 Portage Avenue, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee (2018), 1.
  6. Chris Wiebe, “Winnipeg’s iconic Hudson’s Bay Company building gains heritage status, but city wrestles with its future,” National Trust for Canada (May 2 2019).
  7. See Lissie Rappaport, “Keeping Winnipeg Affordable,” Canada Center for Policy Alternatives, December 2018; Katie Nicholson and Jacques Marcoux, “Buying groceries is a long trek for family in Winnipeg food desert,” CBC (December 2, 2015).
  8. See “Stages: Drawing the Curtain,” Plug-In ICA, 2017.
  9. Cash, “How low can it go? Downtown Bay appraised at $0.” 

About the Author

Alena Vosse

Alena Vosse is a Masters of Architecture student at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, or AHO. She received her Bachelor of Environmental Design from the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba in 2017. Alena has worked as a researcher with the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation and assisted several studios at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba. Currently she organizes the Architecture Lecture Series and the Tuesday Gallery at AHO.