Migrating to Venice

TEXT John Bentley Mays

Nobody goes to the pageants generated by La Biennale di Venezia—the architecture or visual art shows, the film, music, theatre or dance festivals—expecting to see things that are conventional or prêt-à-porter. According to a tradition going back to the 1920s, what’s displayed in the various editions of Europe’s most famous cultural jamboree is supposed to be new and cutting-edge, or at least considered important by leading trendsetters. The national showcases of architecture and art clustered in Venice’s public gardens and scattered elsewhere throughout the island city, especially, should represent the most trenchant thinking and art-making in each home country. 

Of course, not everything featured in every Biennale exposition has hit this high target. But hitting it dead-centre is the intention of anyone who tackles the daunting, glaringly spotlit job of putting on a show for the Biennale—including David Chipperfield, the well-known British architect and curator of Common Ground, the centrepiece group display in this year’s 13th International Architecture Exhibition, opening on August 29. “Above all,” Chipperfield writes in a statement posted on the Biennale’s website, “the ambition of Common Ground is to reassert the existence of an architectural culture, made up not just of singular talents but a rich continuity of diverse ideas united in a common history, common ambitions, common predicaments and ideals.”

The notion that this “rich continuity” needs serious reinforcement seems to have been in the air during the last few years. For instance, a full year before Chipperfield announced his theme, a team of enterprising Canadians—Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic, principals in the Winnipeg firm of 5468796 Architecture Inc., and University of Manitoba architecture instructor Jae-Sung Chon—came up with an ambitious proposal meant both to produce Canada’s 2012 Biennale entry and, long before the festival opened, to affirm and enrich “architectural culture” in the Canadian homeland. 

The project they offered to the Canada Council for the Arts, which awarded them the commission in May 2011, is called Migrating Landscapes. On Canada Day last year, Hurme, Radulovic and Chon broadcast a call under this title to players under the age of 45 in the country’s architectural and design communities to undertake two tasks: “to reflect on their cultural migration experiences and un/settling encounters” and “to design dwellings—in a sense, first acts of settlement—onto the new landscape” fashioned by the organizers. This “landscape” (or armature) on which the models would be situated is described as “an abstract assembly made of wooden modules.” To me, it seems less of a landscape than a miniature city with no streets and densely packed skyscrapers rising to various heights.

Contestants were invited “to act as its first immigrants. The act of constructing the first dwellings will be enactments of first immigration onto this abstract landscape.” In keeping with the subject of uprooting, the models of these dwellings were required to “be portable and meet the luggage requirements of regular national and international commercial air travel.” Applicants were also asked to provide short videos in which they tell their migration stories, and reflect on their “specific, personal instances, encounters or memories of un/settling.” The conceptual concerns with movement and place that are expressed in the competition brief, by the way, come from deep sources: like millions of other Canadians, all three members of the team were born outside Canada, and arrived as strangers to the anglophone North American world they now live and work within.

Submissions came in—about 120 in all—and the labour of sifting out wheat from chaff began. This work was to take the form of a competition, but no ordinary one. Instead of handing off the proposals to a single blue-ribbon jury and running a simple contest, the Winnipeg group empanelled no fewer than seven teams of judges—architects, artists, designers, academics, critics (for the record, I was not one of the critics)—in every section of this country. Each regional jury selected regional winners, whose work was then exhibited on top of a version of the signature wooden substructure or “landscape” in one of seven regional shows. The first exhibition in this series was launched in Vancouver in November 2011. Finally, in March of this year, the organizers gathered the winning proposals from every region into the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and asked yet another jury—this one composed of painter Eleanor Bond, Canadian Architect editor Ian Chodikoff, and architects Anne Cormier, Bruce Kuwabara and John Patkau—to select who would go on to Venice. 

In one sense, the Biennale display in Enrico Peressutti’s eccentric little 1958 Canada Pavilion will be the culminating moment in this trans-Canada story of jurying and showing. The installation will feature 18 brief narrative videos made by the participants and presented on as many small digital screens, a longer overview video projected on a single larger screen, and 18 physical models. The wooden “landscape” will flow through the pavilion’s spiralling interior space, and spill out the door into the terrain between the nearby German and United Kingdom showcases. Laconic, obviously made in a hurry—the deadlines were tight—the objects are smart and deft, poetic, emotionally very cool, frequently wry. In the videos, the architects and designers tell tales about migrating ancestors, homelands and hometowns forsaken, arrivals in strange countries, new languages and new cities.

Certainly, the show in Venice will be a kind of climax; but viewed from another angle it will be only a late trace of the intense and elaborate creative process that will be remembered long after the show in Italy has closed. Months before the Biennale’s gates swing open to the international culturati in August, myriad Canadians in the country’s largest population centres will have been touched, somehow or another, by the cumulative, roll-forward motion of Migrating Landscapes. David Chipperfield hopes Common Ground will help restore architecture’s shaken confidence in “shared space and shared ideas.” Over the last year, the Winnipeg team has been acting energetically on that very confidence as though it had never flagged, generating real spaces for dialogue and learning—in one city after another. It’s hard to imagine a scheme for making a Canadian splash in Venice that would involve more people in an act of community-building than this one.

So after the year-long unfolding of Migrating Landscapes in Canada, will the contents of the Venice version deliver that splash? I think we should want it to, and it might well make an impression. Since 1980, the Biennale’s architectural exhibitions have usually highlighted such topics as urban experience and “architecture beyond building” (as one recent installment was subtitled)—not the quiddity and practicality that most people think of when they hear the word “architecture.” So both Migrating Landscape’s philosophical theme and the oblique, speculative treatments of it on view are likely to be understood quickly and appreciated by veteran Biennale visitors. But these people are also, unfortunately, always in a hurry for a cultural fix. In accordance with the competition’s rules mentioned above, the models are suitcase-sized and occasionally intricate, and they will be perched on or embedded in the large, heavy wooden framework that will surge dramatically thro
ughout the pavilion and out the door. This impressive armature grabs and holds the viewer’s attention, and is slow to let go. As I found in Winnipeg, it takes a moment for the mind to register the fact that the often slight and sketchy architectural models are situated there among the very conspicuous clustered timber uprights. And that moment may be too long for visitors busily speed-dating their way through the Biennale’s pavilions on a sultry Venetian afternoon.

But those who do pay close attention to the videos and material works, and who acquaint themselves with the terms of the competition in order to figure out what this show is actually about, could find themselves facing problems of a different order. A couple have to do with the instructions given to potential contestants. They were invited, you will recall, not to devise architectural solutions for the real problems of immigrants (housing, disorientation, alienation from the new context, and so on), but rather “to act as [the landscape’s] first immigrants. The act of constructing the first dwellings will be enactments of first immigration onto this abstract landscape.” While urging a student to play the role of a disembodied Cartesian intellect designing things in pure Euclidian space may be common practice in the architecture schools, it strikes me as curious. Outside the novels of sci-fi fantasists, the calculations of real-estate developers, the offices of mathematicians and the propaganda of colonizers, abstract, unpeopled and empty landscapes do not exist. “Dwelling,” on the other hand, always occurs in a specific place with a geology, a story, a form, a political economy—and it is this grounded character that gives questions of dwelling their urgency, relevance and resonance.

 The organizers of Migrating Landscapes did not ask contestants to address these urgent questions about migration, and encouraged them instead to recall it as adventure, pioneering, being newcomers in a strange new land full of surprises. The videos destined for Venice, accordingly, too often offer nostalgic recollections of the usual upsets of changing one’s location in the world—upsets, in each case, handily survived and transcended by ancestors or by the artists themselves. And with a couple of exceptions, the models are abstruse, unpinned to any real place, and are as abstract as the wooden substructure—designed according to the rule given to their makers. Largely missing is the pathos inevitably present in any narrative that sets out to talk about migration as it actually is.

I missed some note of that sadness in the competition brief. I think it’s not there because the organizers of this show see migration as a difficult but ultimately positive and life-affirming phenomenon—as it has been in their own passages from elsewhere to Canada, resulting in successful, fulfilling careers in the architectural field. But for countless migrants, and for the earlier dwellers forced or persuaded to make room for the newcomers, the story of the movement of peoples in the modern world has been marked by immense sorrow and suffering. Indeed, somewhere in the background of almost every modern migration and settlement tale is a crime or calamity—the disaster or injustice or hunger that prompted the migrants to seek a new homeland in the first place, the misery (or worse) inflicted on the newcomers by the people they came among, or by the new immigrants themselves on those who came before.

But Venice is probably not the place for such melancholy ponderings, even had the curators of the Canada Pavilion asked anyone to do so. It is a city, so the myth goes, of masks and fantasies and luxurious façades and fugitive shimmers and shadows. Myths, of course, have a way of becoming facts—and this urban myth of postmodern slide and empty pomp certainly colours a great deal that goes on in Venice’s public realm, not least the events staged by the Biennale organization. 

Despite the efforts of one artistic director after another to make audiences sober up and get serious—David Chipperfield is merely the latest in a long line of morally earnest curators—the Biennale’s art and architecture shows are, in the end, extravagant spectacles put on for the entertainment of the sophisticated and very inquisitive bourgeois layfolk and professionals who come from all over the world to see what’s being talked about by the international high-cultural elite and the mini-elites in various countries. It would be unfair to ask any Biennale exhibitor to do anything more than please these large, cosmopolitan audiences. And, indeed, if they give time and proper regard to the Canada Pavilion, visitors will discover that young Canadian architects and designers have been thinking alertly and optimistically, if not profoundly, about the subject of migration. But if visitors go further, and inquire about the generation of the Venice show, they will find a process of selection more rigorous, community-minded and public-spirited than any other in the history of Canada’s participation in this occasional celebration of architectural imagination. CA

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.