Editor’s note: Welcome to Part Two of our three-part series on the internationally-acclaimed Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Along with a photo essay and a focus on individual galleries, Part One features an overview of our experience during a visit to this remarkable museum based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Here, writer Margo Pfeiff zeroes in with a snapshot of the building’s architecture and design. What does it look like, anyway, when an architect embeds a concept like hope for humanity into something concrete?
Surrounded by Prairie tall grass, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights soars skyward from Winnipeg’s flat landscape like a contemporary glass castle or a mythic mountain.
It appears ethereal, but its base is four sturdy, stylized “roots” firmly planted into The Forks, the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers that has been a First Nations’ meeting place for at least 6,000 years. This museum, the architect is saying, is anchored in Mother Earth, just as we human beings are.
New Mexico-based architect Antoine Predock’s design won an international competition for this architectural show stopper that opened in September 2014. (See more museum accolades here.) The building features a “mountain” of local 400-million-year-old limestone shrouded in a cloud of 1,300 uniquely shaped glass panels embracing the structure like the protective wings of a dove.
Breaking free of that glass cloud to boldly pierce the sky is the Tower of Hope, a glittering 100-metre tall crystal pinnacle, an icy peak shining like a beacon.
I follow one of the building’s “roots” from brilliant summer sunshine into a dim, subterranean world along a somber hallway, a rough Red River clay-coloured pathway with black concrete walls. Stashing my sunglasses, apprehension gnaws at my stomach as I face the first exhibit.
What humans do to one another can be as shocking and horrendous as tales of selfless, heroic souls who risk everything for others can be inspiring. “It isn’t a museum of objects,” Predock says. “It’s a museum about ideas.”
And ideas of this calibre can be emotional and disturbing. Provoking thought is the goal here, and I soon need a break, a breath of air, a moment to think. Exiting the gallery, I find myself in the museum’s expansive, glass-domed epi-centre, strolling a ramp bridge of luminous and calming alabaster, a cream-coloured rock the Greeks once used to make vessels holding healing potions.
Around me is a maze of switchback ramps — over a kilometre in all — sloping eight levels upward across the void from one gallery to the next. “Predock felt crisscross paths illustrated how the route to human rights is not a straight one,” says Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum’s Media Relations Manager.
The architect describes the bridges as “way stations. You are in this safe zone, and you can look up at the sky and down to the earth.”
And so, gradually, I return to journey from gallery to gallery, upwards towards the bright sky via darkened rooms where light seeps in and bright spaces are impinged upon by darkness. There are no black and whites here. Predock explains the path through his museum as a “back and forth duality of light and of dark.”
A dizzying spiral staircase offers a panorama of the 4,400-square-foot Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation built entirely of black Mongolian basalt rock in hexagonal columns around pools of water inspired by the Giant’s Causeway of Northern Ireland. A volcanic rock occurring worldwide, basalt is amazingly light yet impressively strong — like people’s spirits?
Wide-open administrative offices also overlook the garden “making what’s normally the backstage totally visible,” Predock says. “You see people hustling, working on human rights issues in real time. It’s about action.” Fantastical as the structure appears, the building’s bones are always evident, the raw structural steel clearly visible. There’s no need to draw back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz to remind us this is the work of humans helping humans.
Finally, atop the glass Tower of Hope, I squint in 360-degree daylight, feeling a light-heartedness in contrast to how I felt in the building’s ominous cave-like entrance.
More than any museum I can remember, this ambitious building plays with my emotions in concert with its exhibitions. Everything about this structure — inside and out — was intuitively designed to openly encourage personal interpretation and varied viewpoints.
That’s no easy feat with glass, steel and rock. Then again, neither is bringing understanding, enlightenment and compassion to the issue of human rights.
*Thanks to our partners in tourism for supporting this arms-length collaboration. Our partners did not review or edit this post before publication. For more Toque & Canoe stories written by Margo Pfeiff, check out By the Light of the Candlefish, Surviving Canada’s Coldest Season and our profile of Vancouver’s unique Skwachàys Lodge.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.