Winter Light


By Barbara Romanik

I pass the Winnipeg Clinic building at the corner of St. Mary and Vaughan every couple of days, but rarely glance at it. clinic1smallerAs shabby as it may look now, it is a minor miracle, one of the oldest modernist buildings in the city, and one that continues to function, judging by the amount of traffic going in and out of its front, side, and back doors. Built in 1942 by the father and son team of Frank and William Lount, it was added to and renovated until 1960, by the Lounts and others. A doctor, Paul H.T. Thorlakson, donated land for it and conceived it to be both a medical clinic and a research institute. The building doesn’t have the purity or pomposity of Winnipeg’s modernist giants such as the Art Gallery or the Post Office, but its protruding tower and the winged pink-hued limestone canopies give it a sense of humour uncommon in Winnipeg buildings. On a frigid January day, it is this playfulness that makes me look up. Like most Manitobans right now, as a matter of survival, I hide in layers and layers of clothing, books, movies, any stuff that can relieve the cold and darkness that seeps in with it. But my second instinct is to pray to Winnipeg’s gods of modernism that their buildings have something to offer, by the way of simplicity, line, and light. Offer me a sense of purpose, a sense of calm, and a sense of self that is light and present.

clinic5smallerI don’t know anyone who leads the life envisioned by modernist architects in their designs: the large windows, reflecting sunlight upon immaculate, open wood-panelled interiors; the sparse clean lines of plastic, metal, and leather furniture with a singular rug or a pillow in the corner; the one child lying on the floor with a colouring book while the adult sits in chair reading a newspaper; no clutter anywhere and every surface dust free. I certainly am unable to reconcile these pictures with my financial reality, or even the homes of my friends, with their children and partners who leave trails of stuff across rooms and piles in every corner.

Even so, many of Winnipeg’s government, church, and school buildings are modern. We are so used to occupying them we forget what they offer us. I work part-time in a modernist building—University of Manitoba’s St. John’s College. Built in 1958 by Moody, Moore, and Partners, the complex contains a dormitory, classrooms, offices, a library, and a chapel with a cafeteria below it. In winter the ivy retreats and the front of the college looks stained, tenderly decrepit.

st.john's6smallerWhen the temperature dips below twenty, I do not approach its windowed, limestone, three storey façade from Dysart Road. I take the bus into the centre of campus and approach St. John’s from its windowed and wooden-arched foyer that links the chapel to the dormitory and classrooms. This spacious corridor overlooks the garden and even in winter is filled with sunlight. It’s a transitional, in-between space, where one can sit down on a bench and become suspended, fully oneself, before re-entering the real world. As people exit north, east, and west, it’s not a place one can hide but there’s the possibility for clarity among chaos.

archbldg5smallerFor different reasons, I retreat to the university’s School of Architecture or John A. Russell Building. Constructed by Smith, Carter, and Katelnikoff Associates in 1958–59, it was rehabilitated in the early 2000s. It reminds me of a self-contained puzzle box. A raised, white, and grooved rectangular building, it has wide stairs leading up to its northern and southern entrances. I find myself attracted to the straight lines, mathematical symmetry, and its lack of compromise. I often go to use the computers in the building’s library. The stations are located on the main floor overlooking the two-storey courtyard, now snow-filled. The yard is usually empty but through the floor-length windows you can see across into the other parts of the building. When the western room is occupied, you often see people around a long table, in a meeting. Even though you can’t hear their words, sometimes when you look up, you catch them in an awkward introduction, a self-deprecating laugh, or a yawn. East across the courtyard, glass doors divide the main thoroughfare of the building. The way people go about their day, shuffling back and forth, there is a sense of transparency, things happening in full view—life capable of being seen if not always understood. I take comfort in the way people utilize these spaces; their movement has purpose. And with the help of human artistry or artifice, I take pleasure not only in the beauty of these structures but come to a certain peace with the winter environment these modernist buildings in very different ways accentuate.

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Barbara Romanik

Barbara Romanik’s collection of short fiction, 10 Things To Ask Yourself In Warsaw, was published in 2009, to acclaim everywhere except the Calgary Herald. And f*** them anyway.