The seventh of a series of jaunts in the key of white. This week: a walk to the top of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
This post is dedicated to Gail, my partner for life. Together, may we continue to climb towers of hope for years to come.
From high above, Gail and I can see the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers on the horizon. We can trace the River Trail’s course as it winds along the surface of those frozen waterways. Below us, a blanket of snow stretches across the broad plain of a territory known, these last few decades, as The Forks but, for centuries before that, as the home of First Nations people. All around us lies Winnipeg with its high-rises and bridges and train tracks, a belt of development tightening its buckle around the city’s earliest settlement.
This is our view on this wintery afternoon. We are about 100 metres above the rivers, perched atop the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHC) on a slender circular platform surrounded by a delicate mesh of steel and glass.
The genesis of a national human rights museum in Winnipeg began in 2000 with local businessman and philanthropist Israel (Izzie) Asper. The building was completed and opened in 2014. Designed by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, who won the architectural competition for the CMHR in 2008, it is a monumental expression of dignity as it thrusts upwards from its Roots (as they are called in the official literature) through the dense, dark Mountain and upwards to the Israel Asper Tower of Hope.
Outwardly, the museum is composed of three different elements that are not as collectively harmonious as they ought to be. The north-facing façade of tyndalstone does not meld nicely with the smooth wraps of south facing glass. And the spindly glass tower does not emerge gracefully from the bulk of the building. But it works as metaphor and significant icon for the city. It is, overall, a powerful form that distinguishes itself from a backdrop of dull downtown high-rises.
I would argue, this is a building that works best from the inside-out. And there is no better way to experience this than by a hearty, fast-paced walk up and down the architect’s ramps and paths. It is a remarkable journey, starting in the dark bowels of the Roots, winding up through long, narrow empty corridors before the space explodes into the first exhibit hall, then climbing still higher through a maze of luminous alabaster ramps connecting other exhibit areas and, finally, emerging into the full light of day and a final ascent up to the tower’s viewing platform. Above us, the last few metres of the tower’s crystalline shards stretch skyward. Below lies a twisted path of human history.
It is a 2.2 kilometre trail to the top and back down again. We have done the full circuit four times this afternoon, an 8.8 kilometre walk with an elevation gain of about 400 metres. All in a little over an hour. On our first ascent, museum docents at each level offer us a welcoming hello/bonjour as we whiz past. On the second ascent, the look is more quizzical. By the third, they acknowledge our odd mission with a smile. And by the fourth they are cheering us on.
It is an odd trek to be sure. But it is a pleasant alternative to a very cold, windy Winnipeg walk outside. A way to get some exercise where it doesn’t seem like exercise, where our cheeks won’t freeze. It’s an opportunity to experience architecture at its best, not as pretty skin but as transformative place. And, aprés-walk, it’s a chance to spend time with one of Canada’s premier museums, to explore its complex, baffling, harsh – and hopeful – messages.
Practicalities: Visit the CMHR website for details. The museum is located at The Forks in Winnipeg. Parking in the area is $2.00/hour. Allow at least a few hours for a dedicated walk and some quality time at the museum. Membership pays, especially if you are a senior couple (only one has to be 65+ to qualify). $64.00 annually gets both in free all year. Coat and bag check is free for all visitors. There is a good restaurant and gift shop on site. You get a 10% discount at both with membership.
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