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The Design Behind the Qaumajuq Building

Mar 29, 2021
by IAQ

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Qaumajuq opens to the world on March 27th. In anticipation of its grand opening, we spoke with lead architect Michael Maltzan, principal of Michael Maltzan Architecture, on the evolution of the building and his approach to such a unique and powerful project. 
A $55-million project, Qaumajuq’s construction involved a 36,000-square-foot addition to the existing building, as well as a renovation of the WAG’s existing main floor cafe and gift shop. Designed and led by Michael Maltzan Architecture in collaboration with Cibinel Architecture Ltd., the new structure is connected to the existing building on all floors and covered with a facade of Bethel white granite.

Its design is inspired by the northern landscapes, with curved sides that mimic icebergs and interior sculptural walls more than 30 feet high, as well as skylights that let curators play with natural light on the exterior. A key centrepiece, the Visible Vault, is a three-storey display that holds more than 5,000 carvings and features an internal elevator and conservator workspace so gallery staff can care for the carvings and teach about them while visitors look on. As a further way to break down barriers between art and the community, the vault is visible from the outside of the building. Another innovative display choice is featured in Ilipvik (the Learning Steps), where mammoth images of Elisapee Ishulutaq’s oilstick mural Yesterday and Today (2014) have been translated to curtain fabric for the stage.

INUIT ART QUARTERLY: We’d like to take a step back to look at the beginnings of Qaumajuq. What drew you to this project? 

MICHAEL MALTZAN: Qaumajuq represents a compelling and interesting set of challenges. It is meant to represent a culture in the fullest way possible while being extremely inviting and connected to the broader culture of Winnipeg and beyond. It needs to connect to the existing Winnipeg Art Gallery while ensuring both structures have their own strong identities, working in concert. It’s a series of design ambitions that make it an incredibly unique, one-of-a-kind project. 


Exterior rendering of Qaumajuq at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

IAQ: You mention the existing structure of the WAG, designed by Gustavo da Roza and completed in 1971. Could you tell us about how you approached designing Qaumajuq in dialogue with that building? 

MM: Certainly, the WAG was a significant project in Winnipeg and Canada and to the history of modern architecture. We tried to give Qaumajuq its own identity, rooted in Inuit culture. Its forms are different—it’s more curvilinear. The WAG has very specific entry points into the building. In contrast, for Qaumajuq, we made the entire bottom floor transparent and visible to the street. At the same time we needed to create a scale for the centre that related to the WAG. While they may be different and unique, the two buildings would share a scale and sculptural relationships so that as you move around the two buildings, they are really in concert with each other. Inside, we took care to ensure the buildings are linked at each of the four floors—the mezzanine, gallery levels and the terrace on the roof—so that visitors can move between the buildings in an extremely easy and accessible way. 

IAQ: What was the evolution of the building? 

MM: In the beginning, we began to put together our understanding of the project, the site, the WAG itself and questions about the collection and the culture Qaumajuq is representing. Those were the initial discussion points with everyone at the WAG. We started to develop approaches from a pragmatic or technical standpoint about how to relate physically to the existing WAG and the important viewpoints from the surrounding site. But it was the trip we took to the North where the project started to come much more into focus. Getting to see the landscape of the North and getting to see the culture of that place, most importantly to meet a number of the artists, was eye opening. To me that has always felt like the beginning of the project. 


Architect Michael Maltzan on Qaumajuq construction site in October 2019

IAQ: How has designing Qaumajuq differed from previous projects you’ve done? 

MM: One of the things that’s important to my process is to dive very deeply. This project is very special in that Inuit culture is very different from any other context I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. What I’ve been able to learn through this project makes it unique to any other project I’ve done before. What has stood out to me is how deeply affected I’ve been, but also how affected I’ve seen other people be by the art. Like all great art, it brings us close to the visions, ambitions, feelings and hopes of the artists. I think great art can reveal those same things in our own lives. For me, that has been the guiding sense of purpose, but even more so, the responsibility that I have felt in making this building. There are plenty of pragmatic and practical responsibilities that the building has, like any architecture, but there is something that goes beyond that here—a building that is a vessel, in a way, that allows for the same hopes and ambitions that artists have in their work to be seen in a profound way.  


All-Inuit curatorial team for INUA, Qaumajuq’s inaugural exhibition, from left to right: Kablusiak, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, asinnajaq, Dr. Heather Igloliorte

IAQ: What do you hope visitors take away from their experience of Qaumajuq? 

MM: I hope visitors get a deeper and more authentic experience with the art of these artists than they’ve maybe been able to have before. I’m hoping visitors are excited by the building and the spaces within the building.The real goal of Qaumajuq is to become a supporting armature for the art and to create a direct and powerful connection for visitors to that work. Some of that is done by creating gallery spaces and exterior forms that seem to suggest the landscape. The quality of the lighting is meant to relate to the type of light where the art has been made. Qaumajuq is meant to give visitors opportunities to be right there and connect to the physical art—giving them a closer and deeper contact with Inuit culture.

This project has been one of collaboration and dialogue with a great number of people who are dedicated to making the centre, with the artists at the forefront. I certainly hope that people will be able to see their impact on this building and that it allow for the artists to have their work seen and experiences in a profound way.

Courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery Photo Lindsay Reid

Exterior of Qaumajuq, the Inuit art centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery
Courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery photo Lindsay Reid
Tracing the History of the Project


A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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