July 1, 2014
by Elsa Lam
Visitors to Canada’s Venice Biennale pavilion peek at photos of Nunavut’s 25 communities. Models for imagined future buildings occupy the centre of the space. Latreille Delage Photography
Phyllis Lambert is a woman who loves to roar. She unleashed her best imitation of a big cat at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, when she was awarded the festival’s top honour: the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Hundreds of architects, scholars and journalists from around the world rose to applaud the Montreal-born living legend.
It’s easy to take the buildings in our backyard for granted, and the standing ovation was a potent reminder of the significance of Lambert’s legacy for global architecture, in the Seagram’s headquarters and the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA).
Canadians had much to celebrate at this year’s Biennale. The Canadian pavilion exhibition Arctic Adaptations (see CA, April 2014) won a jury special mention at the Saturday awards ceremony, one of five top prizes given to national pavilions. It’s a first for Canada, and a well-deserved win. The jury commended the exhibition, curated by Toronto-based Lateral Office, “for its in-depth study of how modernity adapts to a unique climatic condition and a local minority culture.”
Lateral Office’s information-packed display elegantly flowed within a crescent-shaped space that many curators have found challenging. In the darkened room, illuminated alcoves housed soapstone sculptures of Nunavut’s architectural landmarks, and peepholes offered panoramic views of the territory’s 25 communities. Fifteen models of proposed Arctic projects were animated by video projections showing the buildings’ transformation through the seasons–a refreshing and engaging take on the staple architectural model.
Beyond these remarkable achievements, Canada’s influence continued throughout the Biennale. Jimenez Lai, founder of Bureau Spectacular and a graduate of the University of Toronto, curated Taiwan’s Pavilion. Lai inhabited the heavy stone rooms of Palazzo delle Prigioni (adjacent Piazza San Marco) with a light, whimsical set of nine mini-pavilions. Visitors were invited to climb, lie and sit atop the colourful play-structure-like abstractions of domestic elements, including an ancestor altar, open-air banquet hall, study alcove, and (non-functional) outhouse.
The list of Canadian involvement goes on. The restoration of the Mies van der Rohe Gas Station on Nuns’ Island in Montreal, by Les Architectes FABG, featured in an exhibition held at Palazzo Bembo. Canadians Léa-Catherine Szacka and Brendan Cormier (both contributors to this magazine) curated exhibitions on the Arsenale grounds. The core material for the Swiss Pavilion, which focused on Cedric Price’s seminal Fun Palace, was drawn from the CCA archives. And dozens (if not hundreds) of the curators and researchers involved in the Biennale have passed through the doors of the CCA’s study centre as visitors, lecturers and scholars-in-residence.
While Italy’s shores seem remote from Canada, the Venice Biennale remains the exemplar amongst a growing number of international architecture fairs. Unlike specialized trade fairs or academic conferences, it attracts visitors from across the wide discipline of architecture. More importantly, they’re here not to collect continuing education points or to exchange academic credentials–but to soak in new ideas and to be inspired.
In all likelihood, the strong Canadian presence at this year’s Biennale will yield few immediate returns. But the continuing participation of Canada and Canadians at the Biennale is key in the long-term endeavour of building and broadening the image of Canadian architecture in the global imagination. Over the next six months, some 300,000 visitors to the Biennale will see a sampling of Canada’s best contemporary architecture and architectural research. In the following year, Arctic Adaptations will tour across Canada. The Biennale–and global exhibitions like it–are some of our best opportunities for showcasing the strengths of our nation’s architectural community.