"Every day in every way I see something that's hopeful. Wherever there is a glass that could possibly be half full, I've got it more than half full, at least by a drop. And so, I am endlessly optimistic. I always believe in the world of the possible."
Vivian Manasc has been a force for architectural change since coming to Alberta 40 years ago. She is a champion of sustainable, adaptive design and strives to maintain the fundamental connection between communities and their buildings. Through her innovative architectural approach and sensitivity to Indigenous ways of knowing, she has spearheaded a new creative diversity in Canadian architecture.
Vivian Manasc was born in 1956 in Bucharest, Romania. In 1962, Vivian, her parents and her brother arrived in Canada at the port of Montreal. Vivian had turned six in Vienna, before the crossing from Europe aboard the SS Arcadia.
Architecture was a family affair. Vivian’s father was an engineer and she had uncles and cousins who were architects and engineers. Her mother balanced family with a career as a physician, one that provided a strong role model. Vivian also credits her grandmother, “the ultimate optimist” who lived to be 102, with inspiring her to do everything with the goal of making positive change in the world.
Vivian earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture at McGill University in 1977. While Montreal offered little architectural work in the wake of the 1976 Olympics, Alberta was enjoying an oil boom. Vivian came west for a summer job and stayed to start a dream job – working on a construction site.
She discovered two loves in that year-long job. The first was Edmonton, a city full of possibility for a visionary architect. The second was her future husband, Bill Dushenski. After returning to McGill to complete her Bachelor of Architecture degree, she rejoined Bill in Edmonton, completed her Master of Business Administration degree at the University of Alberta and started her architectural career.
Throughout the 1980s, Vivian worked on public buildings and schools in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, honing her skills in cold climate, community-engaged design. Working with Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, Cree and other Indigenous communities became an important part of her journey. The understanding that everything is related – people, earth, water, sky and the choices we make – helped her to design a building to serve and reflect its community. The projects she led were completed in full partnership with their communities during every phase of the process. This unique approach helped the communities create a legacy of confidence to take on new projects.
Seeking to make buildings healthier for people and the planet, Vivian became a proactive champion of green buildings Building on the community engagement process that was successful in her work with Indigenous communities, Vivian developed an approach to collaborative integrated design that was critical to sustainable building design. She co-founded the Alberta Sustainable Building Symposium, now in its 20th year, “because it needed doing.” She also participated in the founding of the Canada Green Building Council, bringing the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system to Canada in the 1990s.
Vivian has changed thinking about architecture in Alberta and across Canada by designing with, rather than for, communities. An example of her approach is the City of Calgary’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). While construction was proposed on the site of the existing EOC, the plan faced stiff opposition from neighbours for a number of reasons. Vivian responded by welcoming public engagement, inviting nearby residents – the group most directly affected – to imagine the project’s best possibilities. She encouraged them to take coloured markers to architectural drawings to show where they wanted green spaces and parking, and to make notes for designers to consider. Opposition evaporated and the resulting LEED Gold facility, which is largely underground, is a cherished community asset. During the Calgary floods of 2013, the EOC’s neighbours brought cookies to the hardworking operational teams who lived in the facility for approximately six days. The Calgary Emergency Operations Centre has been recognized internationally as an exemplary facility for high-stress environments and demonstrates how contemporary buildings can be designed to adapt well to climate change as well as to their neighbourhoods.
Manasc Isaac Architects’ healthy, balanced culture is an anomaly in the often gruelling architectural profession. The firm, founded in 1997 by Vivian Manasc and Richard Isaac, has grown to employ over 50 people in three offices and offers employees free transit passes under a green transportation policy that also provides an office car for travel to meetings. Employees have the benefit of a music room, regular yoga classes and an in-house chef and gardener.
In the early 2000s, as President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), Vivian saw a need to make architectural education more accessible. Her dream was for anyone, regardless of location or circumstances, to study architecture, and to help new Canadians have their foreign credentials recognized. Vivian approached the President of Athabasca University, who agreed to meet the challenge. Through distance learning technology, Athabasca University and the RAIC built an affordable, accessible online architecture programme which, ten years on, enjoys the largest enrolment of any architectural school in Canada. As a result of this pioneering work, Vivian and a number of her colleagues were inducted into the Order of Athabasca University in 2012.
The Blue Sky Awards are Manasc Isaac’s opportunity to give back to the communities they work in. Each year, non-profit organizations are invited to submit their dream design projects. Manasc Isaac chooses a winning submission to receive pro bono services from the firm’s design team to help make their dreams a reality. Successful Blue Sky projects, such as the Skills Society Action Lab in Edmonton, have inspired other organizations to dream of their own possibilities.
reimagine is a Manasc Isaac initiative that builds on research proving that the greenest building is one that already exists. It focuses on repurposing, as opposed to tearing down and building anew with a view to reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment. A recent success is WSP Place, a reimagined building at Jasper Avenue and 109 Street in Edmonton – with renovations greatly enhancing the appearance of the building while reducing energy use by over 50%.
Many organizations and publications have recognized Vivian as a visionary architect and leader, and her projects consistently garner awards for architecture, innovation, energy efficiency and green building. The Alberta Association of Architects has recognized a number of her projects with awards for design excellence and merit, including Driftpile School and the Saddle Lake Junior/Senior High School. The Yukon Visitor Reception Centre garnered a Governor General’s Medal for Excellence in Architecture.
The RAIC recognized the Manasc Isaac team with an Award of Excellence for Innovation in Architecture for their work on the Greenstone Government of Canada building – the first LEED Gold project north of 60. As a testament to her pioneering work in sustainable architecture, Vivian received the Green Building Champion Award from the Canada Green Building Council.
As a leader and innovator, Vivian has been named one of the YWCA Women of Distinction, a Global Woman of Vision, one of Alberta’s Top Movers and Shakers by Alberta Construction, Designer of the Year in the Green Design Category by Western Living and was featured in the Wanderer Online’s Top 100 Edmonton Women in Business.
Vivian has served on the board of the Canadian Architectural Certification Board and was Chair of the First Canadian Conference on Sustainable Campus Planning and Development. She was Vice Chair of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and currently serves on the National Capital Commission Advisory Committee on Design and Real Property.
Vivian was recently appointed Chair of the Athabasca University’s Board of Governors. Vivian is also co-author of Aurora Borealis: Engaging in Sustainable Architecture, published by Coteau Books.
Vivian Manasc’s prevailing passion for art, architecture, the environment, people and communities has formed the blueprint for her work and life. Albertans will continue to benefit from her creative influence as long as there are forward-thinking people creating innovative places and spaces to live and work.