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62M condominium apartments in Canada by 5468796 Architecture

Moira Gemmill shortlist: the projects of Johanna Hurme are the ultimate thank you to the city that nurtures her

Multi-family housing innovation has become a calling card of Canadian practice 5468796 Architecture (AR December 2012) and an ongoing rejoinder to anyone who believes only big budgets in big cities can spark innovative design. 

The practice, founded 20 years ago by Johanna Hurme and Saša Radulović, extends from conventional practice to full-on engagements with the business world,  quirky community outreach projects and the creation of new efficiencies in construction to make housing more affordable. 

Born and raised in Finland, Hurme first came to Manitoba as a high-school exchange student, living in a rural hamlet of 12 people. She returned to Helsinki where she began architectural studies, but chose to complete them at the University of Manitoba. Meeting Radulović at architecture school, their firm was named after the numeral assigned to it upon its registration. The practice has since won several design awards (including winning the AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2012 for its Bloc 10 timber-frame apartment block), making a name for itself, particularly in housing.

With the raised platform disc of the 62M condominium apartments, 5468796 continues a string of risky speculative projects, all designed, built and promoted on minuscule budgets. 62M boasts some universal lessons in housing innovation, composed of construction and massing ideas that are anything but generic. 

62m ground floor plan

62m ground floor plan

62M ground floor plan - click to expand

The landlocked 62M site is adjacent to some of Winnipeg’s poorest neighbourhoods, where most of the indigent are indigenous. A dual-carriageway on-ramp defines one edge, and the plot sits without street frontage behind a previous townhouse development by 5468796, an update of the Dutch Modernist idiom of JJP Oud. To advance their propositions for 62M, the architects hired a cherry-picker to prove that above the level of the surrounding timber-frame houses and elm trees there exist fine vistas of the buff and brown brick downtown skyline on one side – as Winnipeg grows glacially, it retains one of the world’s greatest collections of Edwardian buildings – and the sweep of Red River on the other.

Because it uses what is as close to free land as exists in any North American city (other than Detroit), 62M can afford to create its own elevated site, grouping evenly sliced apartments into a two-layer chocolate cake (iced with Corten steel) set high on a steel-beamed plate around a concrete stair/lift core, with radial parking arrayed below. 

Still under construction, the net effect  is less Dutch Modernism and more café-counter raised cake stand – in the same way, the results are a platform for deliciousness. Concrete columns intermediate between the geometries of the steel framing and parking grid below, being selectively chamfered  away from all-square banal profiles where calculated structural forces would permit slimming. Similarly, the vertical steel fins ringing the elevations are random, creating visual interest for what remains ultra-low-budget construction, despite its architectonic power. 

‘Accomplishments also include pulling off a dinner for 1,000 people dressed in white, gathered one sultry evening along tables spanning a Red River bridge’

Simultaneously striking, unapologetic and elegant, 62M is Hurme’s gift to the city that nurtures her, and one of its apartment slices will become her own residence, housing a glass guest penthouse atop it, with a rooftop sauna. She is the president-elect of Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most important business organisation in this isolated prairie city of one million inhabitants. She was elected to the post because of the depth of her community engagement, which can be seen in a clutch of outreach projects by the practice, deploying effortless proficiency in social media. 

Hurme devised a Chair Your Idea event, monumentalising the effluvia of ineffective tweets by having people write 140-character messages on white-painted chairs, then installing the results as public declarations in civic spaces. She has been a regular champion of the Warming Hut competition, which has seen architects ranging from the Patkaus to Frank Gehry design and build temporary huts for skaters on the frozen surface of the Assiniboine River downtown. Accomplishments also include pulling off a dinner for 1,000 people dressed in white, gathered one sultry evening along tables spanning a Red River bridge – the stunning closing banquet for a gathering of the country’s architects.  

62m section

62m section

62M section - click to expand

The practice’s first project outside the province of Manitoba – the Crossroads Garden Shed for East Village, Calgary – also showcased Hurme’s commitment to using architecture to build community. Here, Corten is shaped into folded plate squinches that arch up from three standard steel shipping containers to shelter a gathering place created between them to serve gardeners, where they can retreat from both summertime sun and showers. 

Largely because of vast over-production of steel plate in China, diminished regional demand of steel for oil derricks and pipelines, and a halt in construction of new ‘satanic mills’ for Alberta’s tar sands, steel facades have recently become nearly as cheap as timber or concrete ones in Western Canada. Hurme saw this as a no-maintenance option that would rise to Calgary’s intensely variable climate (because of Pacific-borne Chinook winds, it sees extraordinary temperature shifts in the space of only a few hours), plus the sometimes aggressive social climate of this gentrifying zone near downtown.

Providing visual and material continuity is a wrap of the entire Y-shaped ensemble in three layers of rusting steel mesh, a diaphanous ferrous gown wrapped around the continuous sinuous body of this meeting of local contingency, global trade and a minuscule C$100,000 (US$72,000) budget. The design has so pleased clients at the City of Calgary, they have gone on to ask what other purposes a car park to be built nearby can incorporate (inspired by those that were architect designed in Miami Beach), while developers there want them to design Winnipeg-inspired, low-cost apartment buildings. With more work in Alberta than Manitoba, it is high praise for Hurme’s design and business innovations that the practice has found a welcome new base.

There are whispers that Hurme should run for mayor after serving out her term leading the Chamber of Commerce, and as an ex-Winnipegger (I taught architecture there briefly in the 1980s) I would vote for her in a flash. This is because she is treasured as a leader from the creative class who talks directly to power and money, and knows how to make things happen, both in committee rooms and on construction sites. 

Architect: 5468796 Architecture

Landscape architect (62M): Atelier Anonymous

Photographs: Keith Walker and Leif Norman and courtesy of the architect