The Anglo-Canoids At Venice

Two of the most astonishing installations at the current Venice Biennale are by Canadian architects who most Canadian architects have never heard of.  Born and educated in Canada, and with only the rare evidence of a round British vowel to give away spending almost their entire professional careers there, ‘Anglo-Canoids’ Alison Brooks and Adam Caruso are amongst the highest-regarded architects of their generation in the United Kingdom. Both are in their fifties, and just now arriving at a scale and range of commissions commiserate with their talents.  More on their head-turning Venice creations in a moment, but first a bit of context, so their achievements can be understood.

Meet the Anglo-Canoids

What is more, these two are but the tip of the iceberg of Canadians of all ages working in British offices, and increasingly, opening their own practices. There is a grand tradition of this—pioneer London modernist Welles Coates was Vancouver-trained (degrees in both arts and engineering, as UBC had no architecture school before WW II), but with the 1934 Isokon housing block in Hampstead and subsequently, he was amongst the first to build in the full-blown International Style in Britain.  Without doubt, Welles Coates is the first fully Modernist architect ever to hold a Canadian passport, with Ernest Cormier of Montreal and John Lyle of Toronto being more timid and transitional in their constructions, despite their own early 20th century work experience in London, Paris and New York, plus their shared intense study of the Modern Movement. Coates could experiment in London in a way that his compatriots who stayed in Canada could not.

The view looking up from inside one of the totems from the ReCasting installation in the Arsenale. Photo by Luke Hayes.

The same may be true today with the cohort of architects from this country who are occasionally gathered together under the veterinarian-sounding rubric of “The Anglo-Canoids.”  Amongst the first was a University of Toronto contemporary of Bruce Kuwabara, Jeremy Sturgess et al—Trevor Horne (no relation to the rock music producer of the same name). After moving to London, Horne has been the designer of a dozen galleries, housing complexes including one in Camden Town that includes his own residence and 50-person practice, and fine houses in Trinidad and Coburg for the prominent Anglo-Canoid painter Peter Doig and family.

The four “totems” of the ReCasting installation are configured of poplar plywood mirrors to evoke a spatial, emotional and sensory experience. Photo by Luke Hayes.

Like Thorne’s relationship with Peter Doig, George Baird protegé Jamie Fobert has had long-time connections to such artists as Antony Gormley (a studio and a Tate Modern installation for him, plus the Tate St. Ives Gallery and many others).  The Anglo-Canoids have dominated buildings for the arts in Britain recently, while in contrast, Canada hands out gallery commissions to its large firms or to the global starchitect of the moment. So sad; our art gallery boards should instead hire one of these Canadian Londoners. Together with Brooks and Caruso, these four firms have designed fifty galleries, museums and studios, more buildings for the arts than all of their classmates combined from McGill, Waterloo and Toronto who stayed in Canada.  Something is going on here.

Adam Caruso

With Brexit in the offing, Britain is in economic and cultural turmoil unlike anything since World War II. McGill-educated Adam Caruso and partner Peter St. John, working with visual artist Marcus, faced a challenge in attempting to re-present Britain in times of turbulence.  Naturally enough, they turned to Shakespeare—specifically, The Tempest, for its narrative of being washed up on a Mediterranean isle.  Their audacious Biennale concept is called “Island” and consists of literally doing nothing to the blank white gallery walls inside the British Pavilion, first built in 1897 as a tea-house in a pre-pavilion Giardini. Pushing past the pretentious and dysfunctional emptiness of Minimalist architects, the design team intend these empty spaces to be intensely used throughout the Biennale, with an ambitious string of musical and poetical performances, symposia, talks, and performance art planned for them. 

The optical experience of a lone visitor inside one of the ReCasting totems at the Venice Biennale. Photo by Luke Hayes.

Adam Caruso writes that fostering non-distracting spaces for public use was his way of rising to the “Freespace” curatorial challenge by Biennale curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, Dublin (see their brilliant ITEC engineering faculty building in Lima). The catalogue for “Island” is one of the most seductive and literary I have ever seen from architects, with pointed essays by Caruso and Penelope Curtis, documentary photographs of early Trinidadian immigrants to Britain, a facsimile in full colour of every page from a Victorian edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and some street-wise poetry by the perfectly-named Kate Tempest.

Partially submerged by backwaters of Hemavathy reservoir, Holy Rosary Church at Shettyhalli. Photo by Bhaskar Dutta.

There is actually some building here by Caruso St. John, but it is subtle, many mistaking it for a building conservation scaffold, that universal form found in both rotting Venice and leaky Vancouver. Extending out from the middle of the cottage roof of the British Pavilion, half-way up the architects have built out a temporary new cantilevered deck, more space for performance, and a wonderful perch to overlook the other pavilions (including the newly rebuilt Canada pavilion next doord, and best of all, a clever means of returning this building to its original use by serving tea to one and all up there every day at 4:00.  Could anything be more British? e

Alison Brooks

Halfway between test construction mock-ups and sculptural installations, the walkable in-gallery building montage with stairs has become a staple in Biennale and art gallery architectural exhibitions. Near Alison Brooks’ ensemble of building elements in digitally-cut wood is Indonesia’s pavilion, hand-crafted from woven reed walls around wooden steps to make settings for maquettes of diverse regional building traditions there. It has seldom been done as well anywhere, however, as Brook’s installation in the former rope-making hall of the Venice’s Arsenale. Unlike most installations there, a tower of radial fins rises to the scale of the vast Corderie, shaping what she calls a collection of four contemporary “totems” linked by stairs, all of which lead the eye to the 400-year-old hand-cut oak beams above.  Space here is more implied than constructed with passages by double sets of mirrors, multiplying her spaces to infinity.

The cloister that Brooks designed at Exeter College Cohen Quadrangle at Oxford University. Photo by Paul Ruddle.

A graduate of the University of Waterloo (with its horizon-widening co-op program), Brooks came to live permanently in London in 1988, founding her own firm in 1997, which has since become one of the most lauded in the U.K. Alison Brooks Architects has particular strengths in buildings for the arts and academe, as for the other Anglo-Canoids, but also significant experience shaping highly livable medium to high density housing estates, evident in her second Biennale installation, called “City (e) State”.  /e This aspect of her portfolio led directly to her first major Canadian project, a Vancouver condominium complex now underwaysm). With an honorary degree from her alma mater and public lectures in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada, Brooks is re-connecting, strengthening the “can” in the Anglo-Canoid.

Uncomfortable Conclusions

Why have London’s decidedly intellectual and often art-related practices led by Canadians succeeded in a way that their own classmate’s firms have not? There are some simple initial answers, such as the possibilities opened-up by design competitions, increasingly mandated by the European Community, and still far too rare in this country, outside of Quebec.  Trevor Horne sustained his practice for years after winning a first (and the prize money!) for a small art gallery in Northumberland in 1976, that took 20 years to build. But post-Brexit, will Britain now re-join its Anglo-Saxon cohort, and let its own equivalents of Diamond Schmitt, KPMB and HCMA scoop up all the cultural and university buildings?

Elevated outdoor "found space" constructed around the British Pavilion. Photo by Philip Heckhausen.
Elevated outdoor “found space” constructed around the British Pavilion. Photo by Philip Heckhausen.

Even more perplexing is the role that British versus Canadian architectural cultures have played in giving the Anglo-Canoids a leg up (don’t take my word for it, look at the websites of all four cited firms to see how vast their cultural accomplishment truly is). Canadian architects hardly know each other, with links of communication and community running north-south into the United States and online everywhere else. Canadian art galleries rarely show architecture and design, and logistical support for our Venice Biennale architectural representatives, although recently augmented, is still paltry relative to other countries. Canada has become a chary architectural culture over the past few decades since its peaks of innovation with the days of Arthur Erickson and EXPO 67, and is now more disposed to granting commissions to the usual suspects, and nothing out of the ordinary, please.  In this vacuum, the Anglo-Canoids could do very well indeed back here.  I wish them the best, but urge them to move back quickly.

Trvor Boddy, FRAIC is a Vancouver-based architectural critic and curator.