Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

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GBR (Green Blankstein Russell)

Biography

Founded in 1932, the firm of Green, Blankstein, Russell (GBR) had a significant impact on the look and history of 20th architecture in Winnipeg. The original members of this prominent office were Lawrence J. Green (1899 - 1969) and Cecil N. Blankstein (1908 - 1989). Green and Blankstein were joined, in 1934, by G. Leslie Russell (1901 - 1977) and Ralph C. Ham (1902 - 1942). All were graduates of the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. In the 1930s the firm's most notable work was a series of housing proposals for the city of Winnipeg. Plans for this project were first submitted to the city of Winnipeg by Ham in 1934 but were delayed and ultimately went unbuilt. The firm's interest in neighbourhood planning bore fruit after the war with the design and construction Wildwood Park subdivision of 1946. Based on the plan of Radburn, New Jersey, this was the first residential garden suburb on the Prairies. Other GBR works from the this decade include the 1934 Sisters of Charity Provincial House and 1937 St. Boniface Home for the Aged & Infirm (151 Despins Street; now Résidence Despins), the 1937 Cinema Centre Building (293 Colony Street), the 1937 Mayfair Hotel in Portage la Prairie, the 1938 Mall Hotel (465 Portage Avenue) and the 1938 St. Boniface Hospital Out-Patient Building (Taché Avenue at Dollard Boulevard). In these projects a tendency toward clean-lines predominates, with an Art Moderne edge apparent in the designs of the Cinema Centre, Mayfair Hotel and Mall Hotel. During these early years the GBR offices were located in the Paris Building at 259 Portage Avenue.

The post-war era brought yet greater success and the firm became a central player in Winnipeg’s mid-century building boom. An important early work from this period was the Mall Medical Clinic (280 Memorial Boulevard, 1947), where the curved, sweeping entrance arcade evoked the era’s attraction to technology, movement and change. This was followed two years later by the distinctly Modernist Shaarey Zedek Synagogue (561 Wellington Crescent) – a project in which Blankstein worked with architect Charles Faurer. It was this building which prompted historian Kelly Crossman (in his article “North by Northwest: Manitoba Modernism, c. 1950”) to describe GBR as having “shifted virtually overnight from the tepid, uncertain manner common to mainstream Canadian architecture at that time to a confident and well-understood modernism.” Other projects of the 1940s included the Glendale Country Club (400 Augier Avenue, 1947), an addition to the University of Manitoba Engineering Building (1948), Winnipeg Stadium (1465 Maroons Road, 1949) and the Public Hospital of Hamiota, Manitoba (1949).

The 1950s witnessed a yet greater flurry of building with GBR executing such works as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (370 Hargrave Street, 1950) and the Greater Winnipeg Water District office (455 Ellice, 1950) – both displaying a mix of clean, orthogonal lines, concrete, brick and glazing. In 1951 the firm was responsible for two different projects which would prove highly important: the University of Manitoba’s Elizabeth Dafoe Library and the new GBR offices at 222 Osborne Street North. Both of these were executed in a decidedly Modernist approach, with large expanses of glass and open interiors. The principal in charge of design for the first was David Thordarson, a 1949 graduate of the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture; the second was principally designed by Cecil Blankstein’s younger brother Morley Blankstein – a fellow 1949 University of Manitoba School of Architecture graduate.

Perhaps the highlight of this decade, however, was the 1954 win by the firm of a national competition for a new design for the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, juried by such prestigious figures as Alfred Barr (first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Eero Saarinen (the noted Finnish-American architect) and John Bland (director of the School of Architecture at McGill University). The winning scheme was a three-storey glass and steel International Style rectilinear block, the bottom floor an open, columned space. The design, which went unbuilt due to political reasons, was controversial; while some, including the jury, admired the structure, others derided it as “an overgrown sandwich set up on picks.” A likely influence on the design was German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, under whom the two GBR principals for this project – Morley Blankstein and Isadore Coop – had recently studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology. A later GBR project, the Manitoba Power Commission Building (1075 Portage Avenue, 1955) translates a certain aspect of the National Gallery’s design to the local scene. During this period, the firm also had a great impact on the creation of modernist churches and educational spaces with its seminal designs for St. George’s Anglican Church (168 Wilton Street, 1957) and St. Paul’s College and Chapel at the University of Manitoba (70 Dysart Road, 1958). One of the most prominent projects GBR was involved with in the 1950s was the new Winnipeg General Post Office (266 Graham Avenue, 1958), a combination of a tall, Graham Avenue-facing office block atop an open, columned ground level with a shorter, mail-sorting section to the south. Similar in its combination of glazing and masonry to the General Post Office is the 1959 Norquay Building (401 York Avenue), where two vast, gridded curtain walls are accompanied by tall Tyndall stone end walls. Another notable work of this period is Polo Park Shopping Centre, of 1959. A joint venture between Simpson-Sears and Polo Park Centre Ltd, this facility was an open-air mall with retail outlets – including a Simpson-Sears department store, a bowling centre and two grocery stores – as well as a host of public art. That same year GBR’s design for the Great West Life Building (60 Osborne Street North, 1959), a calm, dignified arrangement of Tyndall stone, granite, steel and glass, was completed across from the Manitoba Legislative grounds.

The 1960s brought more competition wins for Green, Blankstein, Russell. Undoubtedly the most significant of these was the firm’s victory in the national competition to design a new Winnipeg City Hall. The winning plan – for a structure at the site of what is, at present, Memorial Park (bounded by York Avenue, Memorial Boulevard, Broadway and Osborne Street North – was a two-part Modernist composition featuring a tall administrative block and shorter pavilion to serve as council chambers. Following pressure from the Premier, Duff Roblin, the site was switched back to that of the extant civic legislature on Main Street. This change prompted the current design, completed in 1964, by GBR’s Thordarson and Bernard Brown, which once again featured a tall administrative block, this time facing across an enclosed plaza toward the shorter council chambers pavilion. That same year GBR was also responsible for another highly prominent Modernist design – that of Winnipeg International Airport. The structure, part of a network of such terminals built for the Federal Department of Transport, represented a dramatically avant-garde change to the way travelers experienced the city – an up-to-date design reflective of its jet-age milieu. Again principally the design of Thordarson and Brown, Winnipeg International Airport was an organized, hierarchal work centred upon a large, open, arrivals and departures hall fronted by a black-steel and glass curtain wall and filled with public art. The building was demolished in 2012. The decade continued to be a successful one for Green, Blankstein, Russell as the firm entered into a partnership with fellow Winnipeg architectural practices Moody Moore Architects and Smith Carter Architects to form the Associated Architects for the Manitoba Cultural Centre to create the Centennial Concert Hall, the Museum of Man and Nature and the Planetarium. This multi-use complex, completed in 1968, was planned as part of a major redevelopment of the older downtown district directly across from GBR’s 1964 City Hall.

Over the following decades, GBR continued to practice actively and created such designs as those for the University of Manitoba’s Duff Roblin Building (190 Dysart Road, 1970), the Freshwater Institute (501 University Crescent, 1972), the National Research Council Building (435 Ellice Avenue, 1984) and the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (89 Dafoe Road, 2002) – the latter designed by Herb Enns. Other notable GBR projects include Transcona Collegiate (1305 Winona Street, 1955), the Dayton Building (323 Portage Avenue, 1955), Christ the King Church (847 St. Mary's Road, 1956), Windsor Park Collegiate (1015 Cottonwood Road, 1961) and Willow Park Housing Co-op (71 Dorset Street, 1966).

In 2004 the 35-person offices of GBR Architects was acquired by Edmonton-based Stantec Inc.

Projects

Sources

  • “Nicholls Against Single Family Units In Housing Project.” Winnipeg Free Press. 17 April 1939.
  • “Ralph Ham Funeral to be Held Monday.” Winnipeg Free Press. 27 June 1942.
  • “Hollinsworth Furs.” RAIC Journal 25 (August 1948): 276.
  • “Green, Blankstein, Russell Offices.” RAIC Journal 25 (October 1948): 382.
  • “Mall Medical Building.” RAIC Journal 27 (February 1950): 47.
  • Crossman, Kelly. “North by Northwest: Manitoba Modernism, c. 1950.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 24, 2 (1999): 61-69.
  • Henket, Hubert-Jan and Hilde Heynen. Back from Utopia: The Challenge of the Modern Movement. Ghent, Belgium: Standaard Uitgeverij Publishers, 2002.
  • Keshavjee, Serena. ed. Winnipeg Modern. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006.
  • Ord, Douglas. The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. 126.