Arts & Culture

Faulty Tower

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights as tourist trap, failed memorial, and white elephant

Photograph by Bryan Scott
Rights and wrongs Long delayed, Canada’s new national museum has opened.

In Winnipeg, an area known as the Forks seems custom-made to serve as a national metaphor. Situated midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, at the junction of two mighty rivers—the Red and Assiniboine—the Forks was a meeting place for various Aboriginal groups, and then fur traders, and then railway shippers and immigrants. In the twentieth century, it evolved into a ragtag field of watering holes and trinket shops; and as the millennium drew to a close, it was reconceived as a tourist zone. Now it is home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, our newest arena of noisy ethno-political sniping. What better allegory of the Canadian journey?

Eleven years after media mogul Israel “Izzy” Asper helped set the whole thing in motion, the Museum for Human Rights finally opened its doors in September. The building is colossal: a twelve-storey mountain of concrete and stone, 120,000 square feet of tempered glass, and 260,000 square feet of floor space. Designed by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, the building exudes metaphor from almost every facet, starting with the entry into its so-called Roots (big claw-like protrusions at the base), to a collection of ramps called the Journey and the Labyrinth, to the pause in the Garden of Contemplation, to the Cloud (the glass upper facade), and culminating in the light-filled Tower of Hope.

“I’m an architectural carpetbagger,” says Predock, by way of introduction to two visiting journalists. He’s kidding, sort of. By definition, prominent architects are all carpetbaggers these days, sought out by faraway patrons ever since Frank Gehry designed a museum in Bilbao, Spain, and permanently transformed a backwater town into a cultural gem. Although many a community has found that plopping down an eye-popping building does not automatically transform a city, early advocates of the Museum for Human Rights felt that Winnipeg was ripe for such a statement piece.

Asper envisioned a museum that would cover the entire spectrum of human rights, with a $200-million budget funded by a mix of public and private money. In 2003, when he died of a heart attack at seventy-one, his daughter, Gail, took up the torch. Ultimately, in order to pay for operating costs, the Asper Foundation agreed to let the federal government take over the project, turning it into a national museum—the first built outside of Ottawa. The final construction tab is now somewhere north of $350 million.

In 2004 and 2005, the selection committee periodically convened in the boardroom of the now-defunct Canwest Global’s Winnipeg headquarters. The jury was a prestigious gang: five architects, including Canadian War Museum designer Raymond Moriyama and landscape architect Jane Durante; and six other eminences representing fields important to the program, including historian Michael Bliss, writer Robert Fulford, Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Victor Rabinovitch, Asper Foundation executive director Moe Levy, and Gail Asper participating. Together, they whittled a long list of sixty-three entries down to three. The two runners-up, Gilles Saucier and Dan Hanganu, both Montrealers, are among Canada’s most prominent architects, but neither has the brand-name stature of Predock, whose resumé boasts dozens of cultural landmarks across North America, and abroad.

The boardroom deliberations were impassioned and animated, as one juror recalls, especially during the meeting in which a near-consensus on Predock began to emerge. By then, Saucier had killed his own chances by refusing to incorporate a tower, one of the Aspers’ most determined requests. “To me,” says Saucier, “a tower is an arrogant symbol of oppression—something to control people, like a watchtower on a prison.” Predock’s submission was the most fantastical: It looked like a gossamer veil wrapped around an artfully irregular mass, pierced by a spire. It was attention grabbing and accessible, the kind of image one could easily imagine on an undeveloped land mass—or on a souvenir key chain. One of the architect-jurors stormed out before voting, exasperated with the majority’s impending choice.

There are two ways to convey abstract concepts through architecture. One is through the subtle modulation of light and space; you fall into a reflective state not because you see a sumptuous material or a crazy shape, but because the restraint of the design encourages you to do so. (Moriyama’s Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is a stellar example of this approach.) The other way is by using overt symbolism along the visitor’s path, so that the experience feels like a ride at Disney’s Epcot. This is the way of the Museum for Human Rights, from its Roots to its Garden of Contemplation at the end of the gallery sequence—a jambalaya of basalt, limestone, ponds, adobe-like wall sections, and everyday office ceiling tiles. It clearly took a lot of money and a lot of work to finesse all these materials in one vista. But does this represent contemplation or chaos? “It’s purposeful chaos,” replies Predock, before correcting himself. “Strike that. Purposeful richness.”

At seventy-eight, Predock is a stylish man, small and slight but impressively vibrant, with an outfit that brands him as a globe-trotting hipster elder: black leather–reinforced motorcycle pants (by fashion icon Rick Owens), shirt emblazoned with a grid of skulls (Mastermind Japan), Ducati cap. Standing in the most imperious room of his creation—the cantilevered, glass-walled corporate boardroom, which juts out in mid-air above the office workstations and the Garden of Contemplation—he looks the part of the iconoclastic artist, or perhaps the best-dressed jockey at Albuquerque Downs. His fashion verve is upstaged only by the surroundings he has created: a phantasmagoria of dark, foreboding basalt and light-beige Tyndall stone, wrapped in sheets of glass and trussed up with steel girders.

The museum is arranged as a sequence of galleries linked by a precisely defined path. Right from the get-go, the symbolism runs awry: We are informed that the plain white wall of light along the first ramp is meant to represent the northern lights (no one who has actually seen the aurora borealis could make such an assertion with a straight face). Then we ascend the ziggurat ramp, a trek that feels like a monorail ride on magic mushrooms. Along the way, we’re deposited into a succession of discrete exhibition spaces. It’s trippy and, at several points, strikingly beautiful to look down or to the side at the illuminated, criss-crossing ramps.

But what if you don’t want your journey to enlightenment—whether symbolically, politically, or architecturally—to be helpfully predetermined and conscribed for you? There is no real option, no alternative route to enlightenment. It’s an odd irony in a human rights museum. So is the materiality itself: the backlit alabaster is a hugely extravagant splurge—not necessarily a bad thing, except for the delicately veined gypsum’s unfortunate evocation of high-end lavatories, and the even more unfortunate irony that Winnipeg has some of the highest child poverty rates in Canada.

You find these sorts of paradoxes swirling around the Museum for Human Rights: The fat budget and lavish materials, at a time when Ottawa has scraped to the bone the operating budgets of its other cultural institutions. The generous use of the local Tyndall stone, overshadowed by the visually dominant Mongolian basalt. The encouragement to explore ideas freely, undermined by the preordained path. The theoretical levity of the Cloud, obliterated by the 290 metric tons of steel needed to hold it aloft. Are these conceptual failures, or is something else going on here?

Perhaps no architect could salvage such a doomed design brief. The idea of human rights is, by its nature, dialectic: One person’s right to do this overrules another person’s right to do that. My right to abortion trumps a fetus’s right to life. Your right to freedom from slander trumps my right to speak my mind publicly about you. The federal government and the Asper Foundation have a right to build a museum that looms over the city, trumping the rights of Winnipeggers who may hate it but cannot visually avoid it (and a good number of Canadians who may be sick at heart to think they are paying for most of it). The architect’s right to carve a museum in stone trumps the lonely truth that the very notion of human rights is elusive, shifting like mist among the mountaintops.

Among other curious features, the museum boasts a strangely forlorn black canted floor beneath the alabaster maze of ramps. Visitors cannot walk on it, because of its steep incline; you can look down at it while ascending the Labyrinth, but all you see is blackness. Is it meant to be symbolic of the existential void out of which we must crawl to climb an alabaster staircase of enlightenment?

No, actually, it was supposed to be a water feature—a gently flowing river—that you could look down upon as you advance along this path. At first, says project architect Grant Van Iderstine of the Winnipeg firm Smith Carter (now known as Architecture49), the design team thought they had the financial commitment to pull this off; by the time they “value-engineered” the water feature out of the building, it was too expensive to redesign the canted floor. So there it lies, taking up space but serving no purpose other than to make everything around it seem dark and miserable.

In another compromise, Predock would have loved to use a lighter tensile-cable structure to brace the museum’s glass facade more discreetly, but that, too, would have spiked the budget. He shrugs off these disappointments. “I’ve got a monster wish list of things I’d rather do if I had a zillion dollars a square foot to spend on it,” he says. “And I’m talking about practically everything I’ve done now, except for a house on Venice Beach and a house in Aspen, where it was absolute carte blanche. If you get the bones right, it can shrug off a lot of value-engineering. But what can you do about it? You’ve got a budget, and there’s probably a lot of things you’d like. But if the bones are right—well, you tell me: Is this a kick-ass building or not? ”

It’s definitely a kick-ass building, with its aggressive outer form, jagged paths inside, big black slabs of basalt, thick sheets of glass, and the huge metal girders that hold it all together. There is no trace of the gossamer veils swaddling the core building in the jury report. As built, the Cloud is expressed in curving glass slabs reinforced by huge steel brackets and trusses. On the exterior of the building, all that glass reads as a Darth Vaderesque cape wrapped around a Gumby-headed sasquatch.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Museum for Human Rights looks a lot like Predock’s unbuilt 1994 scheme for the Atlantis Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, only with a more robustly erect tower. Museums are now playlands, built as much to attract paying customers and galvanize donors and local economies as to engage citizens with their content. And many people will be engaged, by compulsion as much as by free will: politicians will make the requisite pilgrimage to the museum, and teachers will shepherd busloads of schoolchildren through it. Don’t expect researchers to flock to it, however; it has just 200 or so original artifacts, and its library is not much bigger than a broom closet.

Whatever the demerits of the museum, they are not due to a dearth of talent. Predock is renowned for his masterly way of handling form and materials. Walk along the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles and you’ll see one of those carte-blanche houses of his, a sublimely proportioned rectilinear glass-and-concrete facade with a subtle sheath of water flowing over its plinth. The house projects a measured, harmonious, and dignified whole, and it is this approach that has helped make Predock a star. He has proven his mettle in so many projects that a good number of clients before the Asper Foundation felt safe handing over millions of dollars toward his commissions; he’s got an international stamp of approval. What’s more, he has the imagination to come up with concepts that are decades ahead of the technology—and millions beyond the budget—that might accommodate them. You have to be a truly great architect to make a building this bad.

In coming years, as the novelty of a human rights theme park wears off, the pressing question will likely be: What else can we use it for? Repurpose it as the amusement park or resort it already is in design? Or, perhaps more appropriately, rebrand it as the Museum of Human Ego, paying homage to all the architectural follies that government patrons have perpetrated? The latter would include Pierre Trudeau ignoring the Washington embassy selection committee to bestow the plum commission on his pal Arthur Erickson; Lloyd Axworthy, as foreign affairs minister, overruling another jury’s design choice for Canada House in Berlin; and the Tories’ commissioning of the spectacularly ugly Canada Pavilion at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. We could showcase them all in this behemoth of a venue, itself an architectural testament to public-private megalomania. Whatever the ultimate fate of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, we’ll frogmarch politicians and school kids through this white elephant as we utter a collective promise: never again.

This appeared in the November 2014 issue.

Adele Weder won the Architecture Canada President’s Award in Architectural Journalism in 2011.