Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Tower of Rhetoric

Proposals for a new human rights museum show architecture's limits

This summer, a winning design will be chosen for the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winni-peg. Sixty-three international teams proposed designs for the museum last fall and of those, eight were chosen as semifinalists (six pictured opposite).

The semifinalists’ designs? Bizarre. Glass teepees mingled with tilting plazas. Doughnut-shaped slabs slathered with electronic screens. A crystalline spire rising out of a clawlike stone base.

The debatable architectural merit of such designs is symptomatic of the competition’s unbalanced scoring scheme. “Response to symbolic expectations” counts for a hefty forty points, and “conceptual approach” for thirty. Compare that to “relationship to site,” worth only twenty points. One suspects that the desire to forge an architectural symbol trumped the importance of creating a building that actually responds to the Red River site.

In its proposal guidelines, the museum board mandated that exhibitions be linked by a Hall of Fame/Walk of Shame, which will highlight luminaries and villains of human rights history, and that visitors conclude their visit by climbing the Tower of Hope, a “beacon of justice and democracy” that will signal the institution’s iconic presence as “a model for all humanity.”

But is such a linear path from darkness to light an appropriate model for human rights? The debates surrounding terrorism and anti-terrorist legislation, the Rwandan genocide and the rights of AIDS orphans illustrate the evolving complexities of our conceptions of human rights. How can we build permanent symbols for shifting paradigms?

Also significant to the competition’s outcome is the composition of the jury: half of the jurors have no formal training in architecture. Without the tools to judge the feasibility of architectural forms, these jurors likely relied on explanations of the ideas behind the buildings instead of on interpretation of the actual plans and drawings. The result is lengthy architectural rhetoric surrounding each proposal. Charles Correa’s design, for instance, is “stretched along Waterfront Drive, like a great jungle cat,” while Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen’s “signifies all that is capable of being locked in an embrace.” Given the board’s emphatic search for a symbolic architecture, it’s understandable why the applicants leaned toward these (perhaps futile) attempts at calcifying abstractions.

While good writing is important in explaining architectural ideas, it doesn’t guarantee good buildings. What good writing does provide is strong public policy and powerful law—more effective tools for advancing human rights than vague architectural statements. The planned $270 million building is meant to inspire Canadians and tourists alike by showcasing our country’s commitment to tolerance and diversity. But I wonder if human rights might be better served by towers of paper from the International Criminal Court rather than by Towers of Hope.