Little garden on the Prairie

Despite what many of us assume, the Prairie is not an unbroken expanse of wheat, stretching from the Canadian Shield to the Rockies, pancake-flat from horizon to horizon. It varies significantly across North America depending on climate and soil conditions. For example, in Manitoba there is the “tall grass” prairie, characterized by (as the name implies) lush grasses, numerous wildflowers and rich Red River Valley soils. At one time, tall grass prairie covered an area that extended from southern Manitoba to Texas. Today, less than half of one per cent remains, making it among the most endangered ecosystems in Canada.

In the centre of Winnipeg, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet at a spot called The Forks, a small part of this disappearing landscape can be seen. The Tall Grass Prairie Garden, a 21,530-sq.-ft. meadow of native grasses and flowers, is in a sense an archaeological preserve maintaining a once colossal landscape that has succumbed to the hand of man. Within this preserve, a small structure and installation of interpretive elements, designed by Winnipeg-based Cohlmeyer Architects as a visitors’ centre, provides a window onto this environment.

Composed of Cor-ten steel, cedar and concrete, the interpretive structure shields the garden from a nearby public plaza. The Cor-ten creates a continuous ribbon through the structure, strong enough to support the other elements, but not rigid enough to stand on its own. The structure touches the ground lightly at three points on the site – two of these points act as a gateway to the garden and the third reaches out into the meadow to create a contemplative room for visitors.

“As the native grasses grow taller, the Cor-ten steel will deepen in colour, the cedar will fade into a soft grey and the concrete will be polished by the touch of visitors,” says Johanna Hurme, an associate designer at Cohlmeyer Architects. “The natural and built components will ripen together.”

Images courtesy of Cohlmeyer Architects Ltd.

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