Migrating to Venice

TEXT Johanna Hurme

As the Biennale in Venice wraps up at the end of November, almost two years of our lives have been committed to living and breathing Migrating Landscapes, Canada’s official entry to the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, titled Common Ground and curated by David Chipperfield. 

Canada is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world and it could be assumed that it is specifically because of its diversity that a strong national architectural identity has been difficult to define and establish in the global context. Migrating Landscapes represents our attempt to rediscover this cultural richness as a strength and uncover its potential in shaping the expression of Canadian architecture. The Venice Biennale became a platform through which we were able to not only draw the architectural community together, but also to engage a singular and relevant conversation, that of a bolder–and perhaps more independent–approach to architectural thinking in Canada.

The project has certainly expanded the horizons of what we do as architects on a day-to-day basis. From fundraising, processing close to thirty 20’ x 4’ x 4’ lifts of raw lumber in 30-plus-degree heat with 100% humidity and getting supplies to site in a city that prohibits vehicles, to negotiating with other countries for rights to the public grounds of the Biennale’s Giardini di Castello, all while weeding through the international permitting process–the project included every possible challenge you could imagine, yet was equally filled with extraordinary experiences.

Our curatorial team of 5468796 Architecture Inc. and Jae-Sung Chon first entered into an agreement with the Canada Council for the Arts in the early spring of 2011, a few months after our initial proposal was submitted. The Canada Council had begun discussions with Architecture Canada | Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) about a partnership, with the hope that for future Architecture Biennales the RAIC would act as a Commissioner and handle some of the logistics and fundraising for Canadian representatives. During these early meetings, we were warned not only by the Canada Council itself, but also by the still hesitant RAIC and our Canadian predecessors about the massive task ahead of us–one that seemed to have left past organizers bitter about the honour of representing Canada in light of the incurred financial debt and the general lack of support from the architecture community.

While testing a new model for Canada’s participation at the Biennale resulted in the invaluable support of the RAIC during the fundraising campaign, the Commissioner role was not yet transferred, and the hard fact remained that in addition to our own countless volunteer hours, we became solely responsible for about $820,000 of the project’s ±$1,000,000 budget, with the Canada Council initially contributing the remaining $184,000. The commitment of so much time and resources is a scary prospect for any small business owner.

It was always our intention to bring the Biennale to Canada in addition to organizing the required Venice show. This resulted in the creation of the Migrating Landscapes competition and a cross-country exhibition tour, increasing the number of shows from one to nine in total. Looking back at this decision, even I am amazed at the optimism that propelled the travelling exhibition forward, before we even knew how the project might be received or whether we would be able to find supporters. However, it was our collective desire to create an inclusive process that could advance the appreciation of architecture in this country and give other young practitioners and students the opportunity to exhibit their work. Perhaps it was the eight trial runs in Canada or the fact that we were fully prepared for something to go wrong, but in the end the Venice portion of the project seemed almost easy by comparison. 

It was clear from the beginning that we would not be able to contract the Venice exhibit installation out due to the high costs of local labour and the anticipated “extras” that are typically charged to Biennale participants. In order to keep the budget in check, we assembled a committed crew of friends and family to participate in the build. At the end of July, just four weeks before the opening and armed with a very detailed work plan, a lot of personal ambition, and the backing of an impressive list of supporters–ranging from developers, contractors and architectural firms to financial institutions and various individuals–we set off for Venice to take part in the mayhem of international logistics, tight schedules, people working on top of one another, and the excitement of the opening days ahead. Our 12-hour daily site schedule moved progressively from acquiring resources and tools, to building specific model bases for the entrants’ maquettes, to processing the massive amounts of raw lumber for what was to become the landscape/infrastructure for the display. These initial steps were followed by cutting, sanding and positioning over 9,600 wood floor tiles and 16,200 pieces of wood before installing the AV equipment, models and didactics. A shoestring budget for the set-up period dictated that we cook at our rental apartment or with an on-site barbecue. Fortunately, we discovered that while food could be pricey, wine and Aperol at our local grocer were certainly affordable!

One of the more triumphant moments during the construction process was the erection of the so-called “totems” in front of our Canada Pavilion. In part, these five- to seven-metre-tall 12” x 12” posts and the surrounding wooden landscape were conceived as a method of drawing the project out into an informal public forecourt shared with our German neighbours, and bringing greater visibility to our much smaller and more modest building. Having the totemic elements extend beyond the physical confines of the pavilion’s walls was also intended to signify that the migration of people and the exchange of ideas are not confined by national borders. Since the entire Giardini is designated as an archaeological site and access is limited, prohibiting the use of cranes or forklifts, our amazing crew was forced to lift some of these thousand-pound posts by hand.

Despite the overwhelming amount of construction and logistical work we had to accomplish in a short period of time, we were also determined to enjoy ourselves in this amazing city. The work plan even included a pre-scheduled break for a 24-hour-long 40th birthday party for Sasa Radulovic that ended memorably with an impromptu swim in the Grand Canal. In town, the hot-pink colour theme of Migrating Landscapes–which was intended to be a contemporary twist on the iconic Canadian red–became a recognizable brand worn with pride by the high-spirited Canadian crew. The installation team’s carpenters and chop-saw operators, or the self-named “outside crew” kept things light on site, constantly taking jabs at the “inside crew” who benefited from the Pavilion’s air conditioning. The competitive spirit within the team spread to good-natured heckling with other nations too, leading in one case to a basketball challenge against Britain; our heroic victory will be remembered as one of our better moments on the international front.

During the construction process it was curious to observe how the Giardini grounds were transformed into a community of foreigners operating in a rather primitive survival mode, with bartering and trading as the main modus operandi. Perhaps it was the bond created by scarce resources, but swapping tools, materials and services among national teams was common. In this new “global economy” it was important to have something to offer. Needless to say, we quickly became known as the team that had lumber. 

Despite the general goodwill among nations, there were also some less co-operative moments. With one week of construction left and after most of the exterior installation was already complete, we received an angry e-mail from our German neighbours. The curator, who had completed his work in July and left Venice for the month of August, now demanded that the exterior landscape be removed before his return to site. Even though we had signed a mutual agreement for exterior permits back in April, the German curator was convinced that our installation compromised his country’s intentionally sparse representation. Regardless of our peace offerings, the situation escalated and the curator threatened to take us to the Biennale tribunal. In light of discussions about the Biennale’s Common Ground theme and our attempt to invite people to take part in the landscape, the territorial aggression was rather startling when juxtaposed against our own themes of tolerance and acceptance of differences.

In the end, after heated negotiations and through dispute resolution with the Biennale, our original offer to pull back the front totem by a couple of metres was accepted. The modification was completed in a matter of hours in the name of international diplomacy, and we were sharing a few glasses of Aperol with our German counterparts the next evening.

The press and jury days before the official opening on August 29th were filled with a great sense of anticipation; the whole city was swarming with architectural celebrities and representatives of every important architectural publication in the world. In addition to the national pavilions’ representatives who are typically chosen via national selection panels or juries, the overall Biennale curator also invites a number of “starchitects” to participate in a curated show at the central Biennale Pavilion. This two-tier system of national pavilions and a showcase of elite global architects is further complemented by a collection of exhibitions at the Arsenale, a former shipyard and armoury just north of the Giardini. The Venice Biennale has always been more about scene and spectacle than architecture in the traditional sense. At the same time, it holds undeniable allure for practitioners at the beginning of their careers who welcome the opportunity to exhibit alongside the elite of the profession. During press days we had a chance to tour some of the world’s most famous architects through the Canadian exhibit, like Steven Holl, Toyo Ito–who later went on to win the Golden Lion for Japan, awarded by the Biennale jury for the best national representation–and my personal idol, Peter Zumthor. 

Our intention for the Migrating Landscapes competition was to view the wooden infrastructure not as a physical setting or backdrop but rather as a more malleable cultural and social context that entrants were allowed and encouraged to modify. We thought that by intentionally teasing out the personal cultural nuances that do not typically enter the design arena, the competition had the potential to uncover a uniquely rich Canadian architecture scene. (Re)introducing personal bias as a powerful design agent served as a reminder that Canada’s architectural identity is comprised of many voices which, when mixed together, should not blend into a sea of beige but instead become collectively unique and potent. It was our hypothesis that in addition to the usual reference points of physical, social and cultural contexts in the production of architecture, perhaps there is a real value in knowing ourselves and what we are truly about before being able participate in the common collective. We have concluded that the competition results and the work exhibited at the Biennale reflect something new and raw–not the glossy images we see in the pages of architectural magazines, but something that is highly personal and just under the surface in all of us as designers. To us this suggests that tapping into someone’s particular cultural baggage can act as a driver for an era of design that demands more independent thinking about architecture. We are hopeful that the results of the competition speak to a larger trend of architects in Canada breaking away from polite responses, and that a new dialect is emerging that approaches the intuitive, bold and gutsy.

While Migrating Landscapes garnered a lot of excitement and attention in a number of media outlets–and was complimented not only for what Peter Zumthor described as a “wonderful aroma” but also for a multi-tiered approach in its conceptualization that allowed the project to be grasped on a number of different levels depending on time commitments–unsurprisingly the international press focused largely on the global design stars. I suppose one could argue that this is simply elitist journalism, but it serves as a reminder to future curators that the exhibition must have enough impact to counteract and compete with the celebrity factor, and that visually simplistic, iconic exhibits tend to gain the most coverage.

In the end, one of the most important measures of success for us was that we managed to run the project in its expanded format and come out feeling entirely satisfied and happy with the experience. In fact, the fundraising and project management aspect of the project has been nothing short of an exhilarating process, one through which we have had the opportunity to meet so many talented and influential people both in Canada and abroad. I am convinced that these connections will open doors for us in the future and that they have more than made up for our time and risk investment. It is also difficult to imagine feeling like we accomplished anything particularly important without the pan-Canadian component of the exhibition. We are filled with optimism for the future of architecture culture in Canada; who knew that in a year it would be possible to raise nearly $550,000 in cash plus in-kind donations for architecture within the confines of our nation?

I hope that the RAIC’s role as a Commissioner of future Biennales will be solidified so that creative talent in our country can be nurtured to its full potential without the massive financial and organizational burden. Consequently, more proponents will be encouraged to take on the challenge and can benefit from the corporate memory carried forward by the RAIC. As a whole, I also hope that Canada will sustain the vision to continue investing in its next generation of architects, which–like investing in international-level sports–is bound to produce results, and perhaps a Golden Lion someday as well. CA

Johanna Hurme is a project manager and co-curator of Migrating Landscapes, and a founding partner of 5468796 Architecture Inc. in Winnipeg.

MLO 5468796 Architecture + Jae-Sung Chon; 5468796 is Mandy Aldcorn, Ken Borton, Jordy Craddock, Aynslee Hurdal, Johanna Hurme, Eva Kiss, Jayne Miles, Colin Neufeld, Zach Pauls, Sasa Radulovic, Shannon Wiebe
Regional Coordinators Linus Lam (BC), Kate Thompson (Alberta), Daniel Reeves (Saskatchewan), Jayne Miles + Jacqueline Young (Manitoba), Darcie Watson + Nicole Marion (Ontario), Katrine Rivard + Karolina Jastrzebska (Quebec), Brian Lilley (Maritimes)
Pavilion attendants Lindsey Koepke, Finlay MacLeod
Venice VolunteerS Emily Fitzpatrick, Glenn Jones, Luke Marvin, Jordan Pauls, Mark Penner, Cameron Penner, Rasa Radulovic
Partners Canada Council for the Arts, Architecture Canada | RAIC, The National Gallery of Canada