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The utility headquarters as a symbol of eco-modernism

The utility headquarters as a symbol of eco-modernism

by Zachary Dark

Zachary Dark

As part of my broader research into the contemporary politics of hydroelectricity in Canada, I am interested in how hydroelectric infrastructure both physically and symbolically remakes environments. In 2009, Manitoba Hydro (a provincially-owned electricity utility in Manitoba, Canada) opened its new headquarters on the edge of downtown Winnipeg. The award-winning headquarters building, called Manitoba Hydro Place, was designed to be exceptionally energy-efficient, and utilizes both passive and active building systems to reduce its environmental impact. At the same time, Manitoba Hydro’s generating facilities have been incredibly damaging to the human and nonhuman environment of the province’s periphery. Since the mid-twentieth century, the utility has transformed the waterscape of the province’s periphery, impounding rivers, silencing rapids, and turning lakes into storage reservoirs, all in the name of hydroelectric power production. The impacts of Manitoba Hydro’s operations have been disproportionately felt by Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba. The utility’s operations have undermined land-based modes of living through environmental changes, community displacements, and the imposition of new labour relations in the region.[1] At the same time, Manitoba Hydro Place is embedded in the “revitalization” of Winnipeg’s downtown into an attractive place for white collar workers and intensified private investment.

Manitoba Hydro. Photo credit: Jaxon Schleicher

Manitoba Hydro Place was built at the edge of Winnipeg’s downtown at a prominent location on Portage Avenue, one of Winnipeg’s main east-west arteries and a historically-important retail street. This 22-storey office building utilizes an impressive array of both passive and active building systems–including green roofs, geothermal climate control, operable windows, an indoor waterfall (to regulate temperature and humidity), programmable lighting systems, and building features which maximize natural light and solar gain–to consume far less energy than comparable buildings.[2] The building has been celebrated in the local and national press, and is widely viewed as exemplary of sustainable architecture.

Drawing on Maria Kaika’s (2006) article “Dams as Symbols of Modernization: The Urbanization of Nature Between Geographical Imagination and Materiality” and Max Ajl’s critical conception of eco-modernism (as outlined in his 2021 book A People’s Green New Deal), I argue that Manitoba Hydro Place functions as a symbol of eco-modernism in downtown Winnipeg. The “green” credentials of Manitoba Hydro Place serve to obscure the social relations embedded in hydroelectric energy in Manitoba. In the provincial core, the building projects a powerful image of Manitoba Hydro’s particular vision of “sustainability,” centered on energy-efficient technologies and expanded electricity production and consumption. However, what is obscured in such a vision is the corporation’s remaking of the human and nonhuman environment in Manitoba’s peripheral north. Furthermore, Manitoba Hydro Place–through its concentration of white-collar workers, upward impact on downtown property values, and iconic architecture–plays a key role in the remaking of Winnipeg’s downtown in service of middle-class consumption.[3]

Photo credit: Jaxon Schleicher

Through the spectacle of “sustainable” architecture, Manitoba Hydro Place brings into being an eco-modernist vision of the future. In this vision, the clean, green, and renewable technology of hydroelectricity exists above the social relations which shape it. However, a closer examination of the social relations in which Manitoba Hydro Place is embedded reveal a different picture. Manitoba Hydro Place bridges processes of dispossession in the provincial periphery and intensified accumulation in the core. Despite the history of hydroelectric generation in the province, through its iconic, sustainable architecture Manitoba Hydro Place projects an image of social and environmental responsibility to the people of Winnipeg.

Bio

Zachary Dark is a PhD student in the Environmental Studies program in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. His research focuses on hydroelectricity, decarbonization, and the Canadian state, with a particular emphasis on how historical and ongoing colonial dynamics shape the energy landscape in Canada. His research is supported by a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship


[1] For a good overview of the impacts of hydroelectricity in Manitoba, see: Martin, T., & Hoffman, S. M. (Eds.). (2008). Power struggles: Hydro development and First Nations in Manitoba and Quebec. University of Manitoba Press., Froschauer, K. (1999). White Gold: Hydroelectric Power in Canada. UBC Press., and Waldram, J. B. (1993). As long as the rivers run: Hydroelectric development and native communities in western Canada. University of Manitoba Press.

[2] For an in-depth discussion of Manitoba Hydro Place by its architect, see: Pauls, M., & Kuwabara, B. (2018, May 30). Manitoba Hydro Place “An ‘Open Book’ on Sustainable Design” [Conference Presentation (Video Recording)]. Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat: Tall + Urban Innovation Conference, Chicago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6Y4fQVeMH8

[3] For a comprehensive overview of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic visions of Winnipeg, see: Toews, O. (2018). Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg. ARP Books.

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