Whoever thought buildings were just structures to house people and possessions has never met Hijab Mitra, the Winnipeg-based architect who designs them to positively impact the advancement of her neighbours in her adopted city.
"Architecture is a way to translate the stories of people who have lived in the community to the built form. Their stories live with the building for generations to come," she says.
Mitra grew up in a traditional Muslim home in Mangalore, India, but was educated through the Catholic system by nuns—some of whom she still considers her closest friends. While her parents were strict when it came to household rules (she was forbidden from going out on her own), they were otherwise liberal and broad-minded and embraced cultural and religious diversity. Her commitment to service began early; at nine, she joined the Girl Guides. At 10, she was volunteering at a hospital for the developmentally delayed, then she spent the following summer caring for the elderly at a seniors' home. She met her idol, Mother Teresa, when she was 15. That moment cemented her commitment to community service.
Mitra naturally gravitated toward a career in medicine, but when she began studying to be a doctor, she quickly found it wasn't her calling. "I still wanted a profession where I could make a difference, and I found architecture had the power to create social movement and healing through structures," says Mitra. Not a conventional thought, but nothing about Mitra fits neatly into a mould.
After falling in love and following her husband to Winnipeg in 2005, it wasn't long before she fell for the city, too. "This is a very friendly place, and being a chatterbox, it's easy getting to know people. This is home, and we're proud to be here."
She worked as an architect at an established firm for several years but struck out on her own in 2012 to launch Mistecture Architecture and Interiors, a socially conscious design firm focusing on housing, health care and educational facilities. "Architecture is not about putting up another building. We can change lives," she says. Armed with two master's degrees and a world of confidence, she bypassed bidding on smaller jobs to pursue large-scale projects that could make a positive impact.
Her first successful bid was Marie Rose Place, a $10-million affordable-housing project that provides refuge for single female immigrants, many of whom are leaving abusive relationships. Next came Austin Family Commons, a three-storey affordable-housing complex that was built with the help of local unskilled residents who gained experience as the job progressed.
And this year, the doors will open at Merchants Corner, a converted hotel in the city's gritty north end that has been transformed into a modern and bright mixed-use property to include affordable housing and an education facility. Before hitting the drawing board, Mitra knocked on every door in the largely Indigenous community to ensure that she incorporated their vision into the future space. "By listening to their stories, I gained a cultural education. Instead of a coat of paint, they wanted it to reflect the people who lived there, from all cultures and generations."
Back at home, Mitra has a clear view of the horizon—figuratively and literally. "I don't think you can see dramatic Prairie sunsets like this anywhere. It's the most beautiful thing."
Mitra shares her favourite things to do in and around the Peg.
1. Narrows West
"You can see the northern lights at this family-run resort on Lake Manitoba, located a couple of hours from the city. The property has the most amazing views and the purest water where you can go ice fishing."
"My favourite dinner place is this family-run sushi restaurant. It has the best fish I've ever had, and they're so hospitable."
3. Assiniboine Park
"It's a huge park in the heart of the city with many activities in both summer and winter. My kids love going there."