Shelter from the cold

River Trail warming huts showcase the best of Winnipeg’s winters

Philipp Gmür and Hugh Taylor’s Hayspace is one of the creative warming huts now dotting the Nestaweya River Trail. (Photo by Isaiah Sanchez)

Surviving winter in Winnipeg is a death-defying experience. Bundled denizens of the icy landscape spend their days moving from shelter to shelter to thaw their frozen toes before once more braving the cold.

The Nestaweya River Trail and its warming-hut installations distill the experience of frosty motion. Stopping in the huts during a winter’s skate brings into keen focus the beauty that can be found in the balance between the warm and the cold.

On Jan. 27, The Forks unveiled 2023’s finished warming huts. This year’s designs include work by artists from Barcelona, Shanghai, Seattle, Montreal and the North End’s St. John’s High School.

Each of the completed huts allows skaters to enjoy warmth, community and design within the cleverly constructed buildings.

Walenstadt, Switzerland’s Philipp Gmür and Winnipeg’s Hugh Taylor worked together to create Hayspace.

“Growing up in Winnipeg, I was always very aware of the warming huts,” Taylor says. “I was always excited to see the submissions and wanted to participate.”

While coming up with their submission, the two realized that their home landscapes shared a certain “resonance” in the hay fields, stored as bales in Canada and racks in Switzerland.

Hayspace is built out of a bed of hay surrounded by a series of pointed hay columns that simulate the combination of bales and racks from the artists’ homes.

Taylor mentions the “unintended sculptures” that often dot farmers’ fields in both countries. “We thought of ... the mechanisms around hay and cultivated landscapes as producing sculptural artifacts,” he says.

Gmür and Taylor wanted their hut to showcase hay as a sculpture and a material that can provide warm and cozy spaces.

“We were very interested in hay as an interior space (and) the idea of a hayloft as a place you can retreat into,” Taylor says.

The two designers wanted to create a space where people could meet fellow travellers or simply rest alone. “I always hoped that someone would have a nap,” Gmür says.

Similarly, longtime friends Thom Fougere (from Montreal) and Wanda Koop (a Winnipegger) wished to create a space where people could stop for a moment. Their warming hut’s name, NIX, comes from the Latin for snow.

NIX’s approach contrasts that of Hayspace, focusing less on creating a cozy retreat and instead creating a rigid snowy labyrinth attentive to light and open landscapes.

“We call it a snow fort, but, all in all, what we were trying to do was create an experience for people venturing out onto the ice,” Fougere says. “We wanted to create a moment of pause and slow down to experience something new and dynamic.”

Fougere says NIX has been three years in the making. He says the warming huts provide a unique opportunity to show off the originality of Winnipeg and Canada. Specifically, “having these warming huts really activates the winter and has people embrace it.”

“There are few places in the world where you can place a 50-tonne art piece on a frozen river,” Fougere says. “I think winter and the extremes of winter are something we as Canadians deal with. It really is an exceptional place in the world.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 9, 2023)

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