Editorial: From Zardini to Borasi

Mirko Zardini, right, and Giovanna Borasi, left. Photo by Richmond Lam.

On September 11, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) announced a major change in its leadership. Director Mirko Zardini will be stepping down at the end of the year, to be replaced by the CCA’s current chief curator, Giovanna Borasi.

Zardini has led the CCA for nearly 15 years, through a period when the scope of the discipline has shifted. Politics, global economics, urbanism, and social activism have actively entered into architectural discourse. Under Zardini, the CCA’s exhibitions tracked—and in some cases, anticipated—this expanded field. Sense of the City, his first exhibition at the institution, explored non-visual aspects of urban environments, while the current exhibition, Our Happy Life, looks at the spatial effects of the global happiness industry. Other exhibitions have looked at environmental concerns, health, and migration.

While many of Zardini’s exhibitions were more concerned with architecture as a discipline, rather than as a profession, others were relatively straightforward in putting architecture front and centre. The Archaeology of the Digital initiative, started in 2011, looked at the early entry of digital technologies in architecture. The series of three exhibitions, accompanied by digital and physical publications (as well as behind-the-scenes research into best practices for archiving digital materials) led to donations of important works by architects including Foreign Office, Brian Boigon, Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn, UnStudio, and Shoei Yoh.

In an era when many architectural institutions found it difficult to continue purchasing architectural drawings and models as art objects, the CCA attracted donations through the quality of its curatorial and archival resources. During my time working at the CCA, I helped coordinate a small exhibition of Álvaro Siza’s sketches, an occasion that brought Siza to Canada for the first time since the 1970s. I can still remember the way that Siza delicately touched the surface of the CCA’s pristinely built vaults, where archival materials are stored, murmuring admiration. In retrospect, it was a moment in time when he was actively considering where to bequeath his archives—a decision that ultimately resulted in a sharing of the archive between the CCA and two Portuguese institutions.

A question that has come up often during Zardini’s tenure is: where is the Canadian in the Canadian Centre for Architecture? The one major research-based exhibition focused on Canada, It’s All Happening So Fast, had an oblique view of architecture, delving more into environmental history than buildings in exploring Canadians’ often conflicted and conflicting views of nature.

Zardini is unapologetic. He feels that pleasing local architects was less important than developing the CCA as an independent, critical, and global voice. “Educating everyone, making everyone happy, promoting the local—this is not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I think that does not serve efforts to improve the condition of society.” As a private rather than a public institution funded largely by endowment, the CCA is in the enviable position of being a free agent in advancing a critical discourse on contemporary architecture.

What might one expect of Giovanna Borasi’s leadership? Borasi and Zardini have long been close collaborators, and Borasi says that she intends to continue building on Zardini’s approach. She plans to push forward with types of content that go beyond the museum’s walls. The CCA is presently producing a series of short video documentaries about urban issues, including homelessness and aging populations. Addressing the imbalances inherent in architectural history—which largely focuses on the western world—is also on the agenda. The CCA is starting a major research project called Centring Africa, which includes many scholars coming from Africa to use the CCA as a research hub.

The CCA is also actively fostering a global network of collaborators, including in Tokyo, Lisbon and Buenos Aires. “In Tokyo, we’ve done research in the archives of architects’ offices that will become a book,” says Borasi, but she also notes that the partnership has yielded Japanese-language events that retain a connection with the CCA, even though no Montreal staff are in attendance. “More and more, we’ll be able to create content and stimulate research” through similar initiatives, says Borasi.

Would the CCA ever take this to the extreme and go completely digital? Says Borasi, “The CCA will still have a main door.”