Northern Exposure

Text Pamela Ritchot

Beginning June 7, 2014, Venice hosts its 14th Architecture Biennale. The six-month exhibit showcases buildings through large-scale installations and exhibitions from 40 countries. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this year’s Biennale carries the theme Fundamentals: Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014. It aims to critically examine Modernism by focusing on basic building elements and strategies–a shift for an event that has come to be known for celebrating singular architects’ creative might. Koolhaas challenges the national pavilion curators to ask: how has their country’s architecture subsumed–or withstood–the international language of the Modern movement over the past century?

Lateral Office’s Lola Sheppard, Mason White and Matthew Spremulli are curating Canada’s contribution. Over the past five years, the Toronto-based firm has held a strong interest in the Canadian North, conducting research and proposing designs that contemplate architecture’s impact on Northern landscape, communities and people. Their exhibition, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 resonates clearly with Koolhaas’s vision.

Modernism has had a troubled presence in the Canadian Arctic. High Modernist fantasies have played out in concepts for Arctic new towns, exemplied by Ralph Erskine’s bunker-like plans for Resolute Bay. Such schemes are characteristically futuristic, reliant on mythical notions of Arctic living. Actual building projects have sometimes realized these designs, and more typically are utilitarian in nature–housing projects led by the government to manage remote communities, or industrial structures for resource development. This type of Arctic building ignores the opportunity for architecture to engage in culturally appropriate acts of placemaking for Canada’s North.

Part of this comes from the unfamiliarity of the Arctic to the nation as a whole. Although we pride ourselves in being a “Nordic nation,” nearly 90% of Canadians live within 160 kilometres from our southern border. Daily life in the 25 communities that make up Nunavut is rarely considered. And yet, the country’s youngest and largest territory is experiencing vast changes and facing considerable challenges. Arctic Adaptations takes on this unknown, providing a variety of views inside this part of Canada through an architectural lens. 

The core of the exhibition is a series of collaborative design projects. Each reconsiders architecture’s role in one of ve thematic areas: Arts, Education, Health, Housing and Recreation. The student designers, who were selected from competitions held at architecture schools across Canada, are teamed with local Nunavut organizations and architecture rms with active experience building in the North. Expertise from each team member is tapped, resulting in a series of thoughtful, critical and culturally specic architectural proposals. Dalhousie University students Anders Peacock, Caitlin Biggar and Fatima Rehman, for example, designed a performing arts centre directly in the breakwater of Frobisher Bay, creating a maritime gathering space that incorporates local infrastructure. 

Other elements display the existing built environment in Nunavut. A photo competition took place in each of its 25 communities, asking residents to capture Nunavut from an insider’s perspective. These photos, along with intricate relief maps built from Corian, reveal fundamental realities of the Northern context. Lateral Office also commissioned six soapstone carvers to produce models of notable modern buildings in Nunavut, from the UFO-like Igloolik Research Centre to the domed St. Jude’s Cathedral. 

Arctic Adaptations challenges the failings of Modernism in the Arctic, restoring the agency of architecture in a region that is primed for progressive change. By revisiting the fundamental styles and systems of the past, it uncovers a timely opportunity to redefine Arctic architecture. The exhibition projects what the 15-year-old territory could become 15 years from now: a place cognizant of its past, embedded in its geography, and resonant with our future as a nation.

Arctic Adaptations will be exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale from June 7 to November 23, 2014. The exhibition tours across Canada in 2015.

Pamela Ritchot is an intern architect and urban designer whose design research focuses on remote regions in the Canadian Arctic and abroad.