Chiselling into tradition: Architect crafts ice blocks into Festival du Voyageur tables

A Winnipeg architect is carving out a place for guests to mingle while they take in Manitoba’s largest winter festival.

'You see all the little traditions that are being kept alive with what the whole festival is doing'

Winnipeg architect Peter Hargraves is turning blocks of ice cut from the Red River into cocktail tables at the Festival du Voyageur grounds. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

A Winnipeg architect is working to carve out a place for guests to mingle while they take in Manitoba's largest winter festival.

The 50th Festival du Voyageur gets underway Friday, and Peter Hargraves of Sputnik Architecture is making sure festivalgoers have a place to rest their glass of caribou — a popular drink served at the festival served in cups made of ice — by carving tables out of ice.

The architecture firm also created the Festi-Bar, an ice bar located on the Assiniboine River at The Forks.

"Here at the festival site, you see all the little traditions that are being kept alive with what the whole festival is doing," said Hargraves.

"I think it's super important culturally for our city to have this amazing festival in the middle of wintertime."

Peter Hargraves said building with ice blocks is a throwback to an old tradition. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

One of those traditions is using ice and snow to build works of art, like snow sculptures and the ice tables Hargraves is building.

"[We're] kind of going back to an old tradition, where they used to use handsaws and horses to pull the ice out of the rivers," said Hargraves. "Now we're using machines."

The methods for cutting ice out of the frozen Red River have changed, said Hargraves — and so have the uses for those ice blocks.

"We're using them for art, but the ice that used to come out of the river, we shipped all over the world for cooling in big freeze houses — so it's a different use now."

Hargraves is building cocktail tables outside the Maison Chaboillez. That spot will host Le Cabaret du Fort Rouge, which celebrates the first fort La Vérendrye built in 1738 in what is now Winnipeg.

'You have to listen to the ice'

Working with ice requires a certain finesse, Hargraves says. The temperature outside will cause the ice to react in different ways and builders have to pay attention to what the tiny cracks in the blocks are telling them.

"They're very fragile. If you whack them the wrong way with steel, you can see the cracks forming."

The tables will sit outside the Maison Chaboillez, a spot that will host Le Cabaret du Fort Rouge. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

The best working temperature, he says, is –12 C. Anything below –20 C causes the ice to become brittle.

"You have to listen to the ice," he said. "The ice dictates what you're going to do."

Winnipeg 'a special place'

Hargraves said building tables out of ice blocks is not only an ode to tradition, but a sustainable way of creating art with a function.

"[We're] working with a material that is readily available to us. It's all just going to melt back and water the lawn in summertime, and that's good — there's no harm done."

Each ice table is made from blocks of ice that are 'welded' together using water. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

Hargraves said the way Festival du Voyageur embraces winter and brings people together outdoors is what sets Winnipeg apart from other cities.

"In wintertime when it's cold, and we're having big parties out here, it's a special place."

With files from Gavin Boutroy