Étienne Gaboury, architect behind a few of Winnipeg’s most iconic buildings, useless at 92

Étienne Gaboury, the renowned Franco-Manitoban architect behind some of Winnipeg’s most iconic structures, has died. 

Structures designed by Gaboury, whose family said he died Friday at age 92, include the Royal Canadian Mint, the Esplanade Riel, the St. Boniface Cathedral and the spiral-roofed Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church in St. Boniface.

Gaboury, who has been described as “Manitoba’s greatest architect,” was “a great man,” said his son-in-law, Ibrahima Diallo, who spoke with Radio-Canada on behalf of the family on Saturday.

“Étienne Gaboury was not only an architect but he was also a human being with a lot of empathy, a lot of soul,” said Diallo, a University of St. Boniface microbiology professor who is married to Gaboury’s daughter, Lise Gaboury-Diallo, an author and University of St. Boniface literature professor.

Gaboury’s death is “a big loss for us as a family, but also it’s a big loss for Manitoba and for Canada, because he has built … defining buildings” across Canada and beyond, said Diallo.

Gaboury, left, was invested into the Order of Canada in 2010, but remained ‘a humble man,’ says the executive director of the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Society. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“Obviously, when you look at his architectural legacy, it’s very impressive,” Daniel Boucher, executive director of the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Society, said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

“I think we all know what a Gaboury building is.… He was really a great architect, but he was also a great person in the Franco-Manitoban community.”

‘An emotional force’

In spite of his success and stature as an architect, Gaboury — who was named a member of both the Order of Manitoba and the Order of Canada — remained “a humble man,” said Boucher.

Gaboury was born in 1930, the youngest of 11 children, and grew up in Bruxelles, a small community in southwestern Manitoba, where his parents were farmers, he said in a 2014 interview with CBC’s Terry MacLeod.

He completed a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Manitoba in 1958, according to his biography on the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation’s website.

A building with a twisting, corkscrew-style roof is shown.L’Église de Précieux Sang, or Precious Blood Church, at 200 Kenny St. in Winnipeg is shown in an undated photo from the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation’s website. (Winnipeg Architecture Foundation)

One of his first major projects in the city came when he was asked to design Precious Blood in the St. Boniface neighbourhood. Built in 1969, the church on Kenny Street, with its distinctive “corkscrew” cedar roof, became Gaboury’s “most identifiable work,” according to the architecture foundation.

“That was the point of departure in my career in a way,” Gaboury told CBC in his 2014 interview.

“In every building that I designed after that … I had that sort of image in my mind” of architecture that “must move you.… It’s got to be an emotional force that will change you by experiencing it.”

That sense of the artistry of architecture carried into all of his work, according to Guy Préfontaine, a Winnipeg architect who was a colleague of Gaboury’s.

“Étienne was a consummate artist,” Préfontaine said in a Saturday interview with Radio-Canada. “He was not a businessman. He actually almost deplored the idea of business, because … [architecture] was art, in his view.”

A devotion to artistry was more important to Gaboury than following any particular style, said Préfontaine.

“He didn’t go for postmodernist or modernist or some of the trappings that you see of regular architecture,” he said.

It was essential to Gaboury that design “spoke of place, it spoke of culture, it spoke of art, it spoke of the human spirit. It didn’t speak of styles.”

‘A life well lived’

Another major project came when Gaboury was awarded the contract to design a new St. Boniface Cathedral, after the original structure was mostly destroyed by a fire in July 1968.

Gaboury’s new structure, which opened in July 1972, featured a smaller cathedral built within the surviving stone walls of the original — a design that also became a Winnipeg landmark.

Another major project followed in 1975, with the construction of the Royal Canadian Mint in southeast Winnipeg.

Gaboury’s design for St. Boniface Cathedral, shown here in 2013, incorporated the surviving stone walls of the original structure, which was mostly destroyed by fire in 1968. It has become a Winnipeg landmark. (Bert Savard/CBC)A large glass-fronted building, with one sharply slanted side, is shown in a wide shot on a spring day.The Royal Canadian Mint, which Gaboury designed, has also become a Winnipeg landmark. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

He also designed the Esplanade Riel, which crosses the Red River and connects Winnipeg’s downtown with St. Boniface.

The bridge, which opened in late 2003, has become another distinctive element of Winnipeg’s skyline, although the space on the bridge has struggled to maintain tenants (originally designed as a restaurant, it is now home to the not-for-profit Manitoba Technology Accelerator).

Gaboury also designed the Esplanade Riel, which crosses the Red River and connects Winnipeg’s downtown with St. Boniface. It opened in late 2003. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Gaboury’s work extended beyond Manitoba’s capital — among his many other designs were a school in Norway House in northern Manitoba and the distinctive library building in the southern Manitoba community of St-Pierre-Jolys.

He designed buildings abroad as well, including the Canadian embassy in Mexico, according to the architecture foundation.

“You can go many, many places and you will see Étienne Gaboury’s work,” said Boucher.

“And for the [Franco-Manitoban] community, that’s very important. It gives us an identity.… We are so proud to say, ‘We know Étienne Gaboury.… He is one of ours.'”

That’s a legacy that will live on, said Boucher.

“We celebrate a life well lived,” he said. “He really left his mark.”

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