Oodena Celebration Circle

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Photo Credits: HTFC and Tourism Winnipeg


Initial Research by: Kathryn McCudden

Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans

Case study compiled in 2019



Project: Oodena Celebration Circle

Type of Urban Strategy: Indigenous 

Type of ProjectInterpretive Design

LocationThe Forks, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Date Designed/Planned: 1992

Construction Completed1993

DesignerGarry Hilderman & Glenn Manning (HTFC Planning and Design)



Oodena Celebration Circle is one of the central projects within the Forks – a cultural and historic site in the middle of Winnipeg. Near the geographic, historic, and cultural centre of the city, Oodena is appropriately named, loosely translating from Ojibwe as “the heart of the city” (Hilderman, n.d.).  Of course, the location of the site has been important for far longer than the city has existed.  People have been gathering at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers for nearly 8,500 years (Hilderman, n.d.).  At 25 years old, Oodena is a recent addition to the site, yet an important part of its modern history. It is part of a collection of projects at the Forks built as the city tried to recover some of its riverfront from the railway: one might call it part of Winnipeg’s waterfront renaissance. The design for Oodena aims to provide a spiritual centre for the Forks that is multicultural and inclusive while honouring the site’s history and restoring its purpose as a gathering space.


Located at the historic Forks site in the centre of Winnipeg, Oodena marks and commemorates a site which has been a gathering place for the approximately 8,500 years of human habitation and presence. The various projects that populate the Forks aim to restore the function of the space to this historic use, after a century as railyards. Amongst the wide variety of projects and installations at the Forks, Oodena was designed to be the “spiritual heart” of the site: “It was to be a rallying place, invoking the spirit that drew people to The Forks for seven millennia. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate reverence for the long cultural history of the site, and to put us back in touch with the natural world within the burgeoning commercial and recreational activity at The Forks” (Hilderman, n.d.).


The North Portage Development Corporation was founded in 1987 to redevelop downtown Winnipeg’s waterfront, and with the mandate to make it “possible for people to ‘live, work, and play in the downtown’ “(FNPP, n.d.). In 1994 it merged with the Forks Renewal Corporation to form the Forks North Portage Partnership, which receives funding from all three levels of government (federal, provincial, and municipal) in the interests of maintaining and supporting a lively downtown. Today, the site aims for financial self-sufficiency but still receives support from tri-governmental funding. The Forks has a CEO and Management team which oversee operations and report back to a ten-person board of directors representing all levels of government, which approves significant decisions on project spending (FNPP, n.d.). In the early nineties, there was a lot of funding available for construction of projects to get the Forks site off the ground and integrated back into the social fabric of downtown Winnipeg.


Nestled between the old Johnston Terminal building and the Winnipeg Children’s Museum, Oodena Circle is in one of the more central locations of the Forks site, though not the most commonly traveled path between parking, shopping, and the waterfront. While this means it gets less foot traffic as people walk past in search of the water, the quieter position doesn’t necessarily disadvantage the circle, which is sometimes used as a practice space for drum circles.

It is an appropriate use since Oodena takes the form almost of an amphitheatre, sunk into the ground, with metal armatures reaching into the sky above, connecting to celestial movements and giving the site a cosmological meaning. Sixty meters in diameter, the circle was excavated three meters – a depth that places the centre of the circle on an ancient ground level, where the sky met land approximately 3000 years ago. Standing at the centre, you view the sky from the same position that people would have all those many years ago (albeit, through a veil of downtown Winnipeg’s light pollution).

Cosmology played a role in the design: not only do the cobbled stone formations, which surround the circle, align with important annual celestial events like the solstices and equinoxes, but the armatures include sightings that guide the naked eye to certain constellations that have had important symbolism and mythology to human history (Hilderman, n.d.).

One of the project designers wrote that “Oodena has become a gathering place that evokes spirituality without reference to culture-specific symbols, by directing our attention to the beauty of the sun on the horizon, the wonder of starry nights, the serenity of winter bonfires and the drama of spring flooding. These are all experiences which unite us as human beings as they have for thousands of years at the ‘Meeting Place’ “(Hilderman, n.d.).

A vegetated hillside separates the circle from the river, and the change in elevation between the circle and the river means that even with its three-meter excavated bowl, it stays free and clear above the annual spring flooding of the riverbank. Though, in an extreme flood, it could likely function as emergency retention and drainage area, diverting water from the commercial buildings nearby).


The history of the site (and the background of the project) is a long one. It was a meeting place for Indigenous people to trade for thousands of years before Europeans arrived to first trade and later settle at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers (Wakshinkski, n.d.). When the railway was built in the 1880s to connect Eastern and Western Canada, (Cooper, 2009, p. 47) it effectively cut off the city from the waterfront and built over this historic point. One hundred years later, the North Portage Development Corporation (today the Forks North Portage Partnership) was established to redevelop the central Winnipeg waterfront. Old buildings which had for decades been used for railway storage and maintenance were turned to office and commercial space, and the Assiniboine Riverwalk was one of the first exterior spaces to lead the reclamation charge. A virtual plethora of projects have followed in the 30 years since: “through careful planning and design over the past 30 years, although once cut off from the heart of the city, The Forks now is the heart” (Wakshinski, n.d.).

Amongst the commercial developments on site, the NPDC sought projects that would represent the history and spiritual aspects of the site and commissioned HTFC Planning and Design to create such a space (Hilderman, n.d.).


“The design challenge was to identify appropriate uses for the site and imbue a sense of spirituality within the burgeoning commercial and recreational activity. One aspect of the challenge was the diversity of cultural groups that had a stake in the heritage of The Forks” (HTFC Planning and Design, n.d.).

This project is an excellent study in the challenge of designing for sites in Canada that are accessible to groups from different cultures. Creating a place that acknowledges the historical importance to one demographic group (or rather, a multitude, since Indigenous groups are not and never were homogenous. This was a site for meeting and trade, and holds meaning for various Indigenous groups), without creating something that excludes other cultural groups that may use the site.


Oodena was designed as the “spiritual heart” of the Forks, a place that would acknowledge the history and importance of a site that, before the last century, had been central to life in the area for millennia (Hilderman, n.d.). Restoring this use was a significant goal of the project. As part of the mandate of the Forks, it would also have aimed to increase the ability and ease to “live, work, and play in the downtown” (FNPP, n.d.).


The city needed a reconnection to its rivers, and the downtown required a revitalization. Over time, these needs came to outweigh those of the railway, as it declined in importance to the city, and cultural and social needs grew. Oodena is just one project amongst the collection of projects that make up the Forks site, many with different focuses, serving different needs and members of the community. The design of Oodena aimed to provide a spiritual need, a place perhaps a little quieter, with gravitas, for unspecified group gatherings. The amphitheatre-like form supports this use, as it separates the space from the paths that move people around it.


Gary Hilderman, one of the lead designers on the project, wrote that “by [the time of the development of the Forks site]… Manitobans – like most urban dwellers – had come to notice nature’s dynamic forces only when they were cataclysmic. Most of us could not even identify Polaris, the North Star” (Hilderman, n.d.). The context of the city and culture played a role in the design decisions, including the decision to lift the gaze of the visitors upwards, even as they descend into the earth, and the ground-level of an earlier time. The focus is lifted upwards, not down to the planet and the archaeological secrets it may hold, but the sky and the constellations, to an aspect of the natural world which is often unseen from the heart of the city, and which has played a role in human spirituality and religions across cultures, and throughout recorded time.

The designers chose a non-culturally-specific approach to the design of the “spiritual heart” of the Forks (HTFC, n.d.). Navigating through this was a difficult, since the site is historically and culturally significant to the Indigenous inhabitants of the region above and beyond any others, yet modern Winnipeg is a culturally diverse city, and the project would be serving the current population.

From the design firm: “early in the design process, Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram gathered archaeologists, historians, aboriginal representatives, designers and administrators in a workshop to discuss the source of spirituality in the landscape. The forces of nature, celestial patterns, and mythologies were common themes running through the discussion.” (HTFC, n.d.)


HTFC Planning and Design was selected to design a spiritual site within the Forks, to develop social depth in the site, or roundness, if we use the circular city concept developed by DELVA Landscape Architects (DELVA, n.d.). A task the designers had was to balance the commercial and business developments at the Forks which was already happening at the time. They did this in part by the process of community consultation, and a careful study of the history and importance of this site to the city as it was, is and will be. The aim, in keeping with the goals of the Forks as a whole, was to restore the purpose and function of the site as a gathering place (HTFC, n.d.).


The programmed elements of the design for Oodena Celebration Circle are both cosmological and social and aim to unite the groups that gather for purposes both astronomical and social. These elements include:

-Metal armatures that point to specific constellations, with attached hoops that guide sightlines and allow for naked eye astronomy.

-Interpretive panels at the centre of the circle help people interpret the visible astronomy independently.

-An Aeolian Harp, which uses the wind to produce music, aimed at the constellation Lyra, the lyre.

-Cobblestone formations at the lip of the bowl of the circle, create gaps in the rhythm of the edge, which align with sunrise and sunsets of significant days in the solar calendar, like the summer and winter solstices, and the equinox.

-A stone medallion covers a ceremonial fire pit, which can be uncovered and used for special events throughout the year.

-Stone steps down to the centre of the circle double as seating, while a ramp which descends by following the edge provides universal access to the centre of the circle.

-The earth around the rim of the circle is mounded in a way that supports the acoustics within the circle, throwing sound back to the centre.


Oodena Celebration Circle has received a CSLA National Honour Award (1995), an International Excellence on the Waterfront Award (1999), and a CSLA National Merit Award (2007). In 2018 the Forks received the Legacy Project Award by the CSLA, recognizing all projects within the site and how they have worked together to create a cohesive experience which tells the story of that unique place. Oodena is very much a part of that story.

The space today hosts events throughout the year. In the past it has hosted a winter solstice celebration (Manning and Thomas, n.d.), Indigenous Day events (CBC, n.d.), and a variety of musical and theatrical performances.


The Forks manages and maintains the site. Maintenance includes snow clearance throughout the winter, waste disposal, and seasonal clean-up. During summer, the lawn is mowed, but not onerously.


Oodena Celebration Circle. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2019, from https://www.htfc.ca/projects/oodena-celebration-circle/

Oodena Celebration Circle. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2019, from https://www.tourismwinnipeg.com/things-to-do/attractions/display,listing/05999/oodena-celebration-circle