During his many award-winning years on the Winnipeg architecture scene Ron Keenberg demonstrated an approach of remarkable uniqueness and distinction, establishing an oeuvre which is difficult to categorise.
Keenberg was born in Winnipeg on December 30, 1941 to Mary and Abraham Keenberg. Following a brief period of pre-medicine study in Winnipeg, Keenberg was determined to pursue a career in design. He left for New York to attend the Pratt Institute in 1961. He graduated four years later, in 1965, having studied with such notable figures as art and architectural historian Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. Not long after returning to Winnipeg, the young Keenberg was hired by the prominent city architectural firm Libling Michener. Here he met colleagues Jim Yamashita and Stan Osaka, with whom he partnered to submit a design for the Winnipeg Art Gallery national competition in 1968. The three earned an honourable mention for their entry. More significantly, this collaboration led to the formation of a new firm, IKOY, which would gain national attention and become synonymous with Keenberg’s architectural career.
IKOY drew its moniker from the names of its principle designers: Roy Izen (I), Keenberg (K), Stan Osaka (O) and Yamashita (Y). Over the years Keenberg’s partners left the firm, with Yamashita the last to depart, in 1993. In general it is held that it was Keenberg who was greatly responsible for IKOY’s design direction and architectural style. Initially times were difficult for the young practice. Early projects included the 1971 design of an apartment block at 444 Kennedy Street in Winnipeg (a project whose low budget did not allow for a great deal of creativity) and a contract for the interior design of the University of Manitoba Student Union Building (Number Ten Architectural Group, 65 Chancellor’s Circle, 1966-69). These commissions were accompanied by a number of public housing assignments including the wood-clad mix of pitched roofs and exposed orthogonal structures of the 1972 Westboine Housing Co-operative (32 Shelmerdine Drive) and St. Andrew’s Place (425 Ellen Street, Winnipeg, 1974). Another noteworthy work of this period is the 1973 design of Keenberg’s former residence at 2 Avonherst Street, a boxy, minimalist ensemble of stucco and large windows overlooking Enderton Park.
It was during the 1970s as well that IKOY pioneered two facets which would set the firm apart from the architectural mainstream. The first was the construction of projects with IKOY itself serving as developer rather than simply working on plans for other concerns. A key example of such efforts is Bromley Square (123 10th Avenue SW, Calgary, 1977), a rapidly erected 31-storey complex featuring 396 apartments, office space, a recreation centre and enclosed parking.
The second was the initiation of the colourful, high-tech aesthetic for which the firm would become known. This look was first pioneered in the plans for a parkade (unbuilt) adjacent to the Winnipeg Convention Centre and, in 1977, was manifested concretely with the construction of Assiniboine Community College in Brandon (1430 Victoria Avenue East). Here – and in future buildings bearing the firm’s trademark style – the architecture was partly the result of what IKOY termed a “five component system." The components described were mechanical, electrical, skin, design strategy and implementation or fitments. These have been linked by what Keenberg identified as a sixth component – action strategies. Jim Yamashita cited as inspiration for much of this technique a design seminar held by Jim Powers in Nashville, Tennessee on project and systems drafting.
Shortly after the Brandon College project this approach was epitomised in the design of the firm’s highly acclaimed offices (396 Assiniboine Avenue, 1978), which Keenberg has described as a breakthrough project. Here it is clear the degree to which the firm sought to reveal and highlight the construction systems entailed – often calling attention to these uncovered elements with bright paint. As described by Keenberg, these colours were typically canary yellow, red, green and maroon, though a bright aqua also makes an appearance in IKOY projects.
Other Keenberg projects that make plain this unmistakable aesthetic, termed “tool-kit architecture,” are the Red River Community College Auto Diesel Shop (2055 Notre Dame Avenue, 1983) and the University of Manitoba’s Wallace Building (125 Dysart Road, 1986), the first of which won the firm a Governor General’s prize. Similar inimitable landmarks of the firm’s open assembly idiom include the somewhat controversial red Provincial Courthouse in Flin Flon, Manitoba (1985). This building, according to Keenberg, led the birth of IKOY’s “Enhanced Amplification” design strategy, wherein construction elements are made to appear to be doing more than they, in fact, are. Comparable projects by the firm from this period are the Winnipeg RCMP Forensic Lab (621 Academy Road); Deer Lodge Hospital (2109 Portage Avenue); and the William G. Davis Computer Research Centre at the University of Waterloo, all of 1987. The last of these was a competition-winning scheme hailed by critic Adele Freeman as “one of the most exciting buildings to appear on the parched Canadian landscape in years.” This building also represented the adoption of energy conservation goals, here in part achieved by means of pre-cast hollow core slabs.
In Winnipeg the approach used by IKOY and Keenberg is most comparable to that seen in the 1973 design of Centennial Hall by the firm Moody Moore Duncan Rattray Peters Searle Christie; Keenberg has expressed admiration for principal designer Lewis Morse. This project echoes techniques seen within the work of such European architects as Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, the latter of whom Keenberg has also cited as inspiration, along with architects Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn and Michael Hopkins. Over the years Keenberg has cited as further influences colleague and engineer Rick Muzyk and architect Magda Hulsbosch.
IKOY projects from this era which differ from the firm’s typical aesthetic include the 1980 Harbour View Recreation Complex; York Estates (134 Smith Street, 1981), an angular apartment block which won an honourable mention by the Canadian Housing Design Council and bore another of the firm’s characteristic gestures, incised concrete lines; and a sensitive 1987 addition to the Winnipeg International Airport’s original high modernist structure.
In 1987 – out of frustration with an architectural culture which, due to his degree in design and not architecture, did not acknowledge him as an architect despite years of award-winning experience and teaching in the field – Keenberg began a Master’s of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, where he had previously taught. He graduated in 1989. On the advice of Gustavo da Roza, rather than writing a treatise for his thesis, Keenberg designed a recreation complex centred upon two pools. Not long after, IKOY won a national competition for the 1990 London Aquatic Centre in London, Ontario; the final result, partially sunken into the earth, reflects Keenberg’s existing, colourful “humanist high tech” design philosophy.
The same, slowly evolving manner can be found in later Keenberg projects: the 1994 Thunder Bay Air Terminal (completed by Yamashita while at Smith Carter architects); the gleaming silver Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Brandon, Manitoba (1995) – with inspiration from the worlds of farming and science; the Base Maintenance Facility and First Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Shilo, Manitoba (1996-98), which won a Prairie 2000 Architecture Award of Excellence; the Militia Training Centre, CFB Valcartier, Quebec, 1997; the ADF Steel Plant, Terrebonne, Quebec, 1997; and the Advanced Technology & Academic Centre, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, 2003. Perhaps the most notable work of this later era is the National Archives in Gatineau, Quebec, (1997), which won IKOY a Governor General’s Medal. This large structure – described by Keenberg as a “Village of Preservation and Conservation” – was conceived to somewhat recall, in a far more modern and technologically up-to-date manner, the ancient Athenian Parthenon. The village-like approach of this building was pioneered in earlier IKOY projects featuring interior street type spaces, such as Deer Lodge and the Northwest Recreation Centre (Regina, 1984).
At the height of its practice, IKOY operated out of three offices, in Winnipeg, Regina and Thunder Bay. By the 2000s those three branches had closed, with the main base for the firm’s operations located in Ottawa. In 2003 IKOY was one of two offices to win the first Royal Institute of Canadian Architects’ Firm Award. Two years later, at the age of 63, Keenberg ended his practice with IKOY. In 2006 Keenberg released a book called Sex, Violence & Architecture (Toronto: Hushion House Publishing Ltd.), which recounted his years in the field and his design philosophy.