Sweat in Venice

PROJECT SweaterLodge

DESIGNERS Pechet and Robb Studio

CURATORS Greg Bellerby and Chris Macdonald

VIDEO Global Mechanics

TEXT Helena Grdadolnik

During the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Canadian architecture was represented by a log cabin built in one of the Italian city’s most prominent piazzas. At the time, I voiced a strong opinion against the negative stereotype this building choice engendered. Soon afterwards, I found out that Canadian architecture would once again be represented at an international event in Italy by a clich–this time a giant polar fleece sweater would be installed in the Canadian Pavilion at the 10th Architecture Biennale in Venice.

How did I feel about SweaterLodge representing Canada at the Biennale? Conflicted. That was until I spoke with the various members involved–designers Stephanie Robb and Bill Pechet of Pechet and Robb Studio, as well as the co-curators Greg Bellerby of the Charles H. Scott Gallery and Chris Macdonald, who was until recently the director of the School of Architecture at UBC. They convinced me that an architectural environment created by an oversized orange sweater could be an appropriate medium for a relevant, intelligent commentary on issues ranging from sustainability to appropriation of native culture. The project aimed to highlight a number of general urban concerns as well as some particular to Vancouver, a city where outdoor leisure lifestyle intersects with urban living. In the words of Chris Macdonald, “Vancouver’s urbanity is vitally contaminated by ever-present leisure activities.”

The interdisciplinary work of Pechet and Robb is often infused with humour and theatricality, two characteristics that don’t seem an obvious fit for their cemetery and memorial commissions, but they make it work through a careful balance of gravitas and levity. When discussing the use of humour in their work, Bill Pechet says, “Architecture itself isn’t particularly a venue for satire–architecture is too inside of and part of the major systems of the world.” This may be why the two tend to practice in the middle ground between art and architecture. Since 1991, Pechet and Robb Studio have designed private residences, public art, set design, interiors and furniture. With this background, it seemed that if anyone could make a super-sized sweater work, they could.

For Stephanie Robb, having the stereotypical polar fleece sweater play off the equally clichd Canadian Pavilion in Venice added another dimension to the work. The pavilion is in the form of a teepee and has a tree growing through the middle encased in glass, exactly what you would expect from an Italian architect designing in the 1950s. Unfortunately, it is a small and difficult space and–despite the semiotic parallels–in the end, the sweater was a tight fit, both literally and figuratively.

The fabric was folded and draped to squeeze into the building, and the centre of the pavilion was given over to a quirky video juxtaposing water bottles and Vancouver’s glass towers. The video was activated by pedalling one of three stationary bikes. If you didn’t want to get on a bike and pedal (and I didn’t–Venice was sweltering and I wasn’t dressed for it) then there was nowhere else inviting to inhabit with the exception of a few tree stumps near the entrance on which to awkwardly perch. It may have been better to do away with the video and the bikes and have more unprogrammed space for contemplation of the sweater and its layers of meaning. It is unfortunate, because as Chris Macdonald noted in his curatorial statement, “Pechet and Robb’s accomplishments include a number of installations within the public landscape that anticipate and even provoke the invention of new social practices.” Pechet and Robb missed the opportunity to do the same in Venice.

Talking about what they were trying to achieve with the project, Greg Bellerby explained, “SweaterLodge aims to be an experiential space, not merely a representation of an idea or a place, providing an opportunity for the viewer to be engaged as well as enlightened.” What is disappointing about the built result is that it was neither engaging nor enlightening. The equipment for the video drew a plethora of wires overhead, a layer of visual noise between the viewer and what should have felt like the main attraction–the big orange sweater. This should have been integrated more thoughtfully into the design. Furthermore, in an installation of this nature, there is a fine balance between explaining too much and visitors not having sufficient clues to connect the dots themselves. Anyone who did not take time to read the text near the entrance–and with so many pavilions one after another, who can blame them–would not necessarily have known that the polar fabric was made from recycled plastic drink containers.

The international audience to be expected at an exhibit such as this exacerbated the miscommunication; how many understood the play on words? Even the Brits may not know that a sweater is what they call a jumper, that a sweat lodge is a community structure used in native culture for ritual cleansing and enlightenment, and they are likely not aware of the subtle tendency in Canada to shallowly appropriate these traditions. The shade of orange chosen has been very fashionable in architectural graphics over the last few years, but only for Canadians would this colour conjure up images of out-in-the-woods safety gear from the hunting aisle of Canadian Tire. A few short lines of large-font explanatory text would have gone a long way here, especially since one of SweaterLodge’s strengths was that it was one of the few pavilions at this year’s Biennale that attempted to create a visceral experience rather than inundating the visitor with reams of didactic text and graph-based information.

The original idea was to bring the sweater back to Canada and recycle it back into hats and scarves, but the last I heard, there was not enough funding in place to bring the work back from Italy. That would truly be a shame because with a bit of re-editing such as the removal of the bikes and video and the addition of brief, punchy explanatory text, this installation would work extremely well for a Canadian audience capable of understanding the puns. It is exactly the type of accessible, fun and informative exhibition on architecture needed to stimulate the public’s interest and get them to think about their surrounding built environment. SweaterLodge would benefit from a large space such as a convention centre, warehouse or large museum, somewhere that it can be seen and experienced both inside and out. It is time to take the sweater out from where it has been folded and stuffed away in Venice, and bring it back home to the cool Canadian climate where it is far more appropriate.

For more information, please visit www.sweaterlodge.ca and www.labiennale.org.

Helena Grdadolnik is pursuing doctoral studies in the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics.