Editorial: The Enduring Benefits of International Exposure

After returning from the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale, I found myself thinking about the true value of promoting Canadian architecture abroad. How important is it for Canadian architects to be visible internationally? And if there is a value, what is it?

Designed by Bing Thom Architects, the 2008 London Design Festival installation at Canada House provided vital international exposure for Canadian architects. Photo by Morley von Sternberg.
Designed by Bing Thom Architects, the 2008 London Design Festival installation at Canada House provided vital international exposure for Canadian architects. Photo by Morley von Sternberg.

For Bing Thom Architects (now Revery Architecture) and Fast + Epp Structural Engineers, their design and construction of an undulating wood wall around Canada House at the 2008 London Design Festival was invaluable—not only for the two firms, but for the rest of the Canadian design industry. The visibly striking, high-profile project reaffirmed the leadership role of Canada in general and British Columbia in particular in terms of wood innovation.

For Johanna Hurme of 5468796 Architecture, the benefits of curating Migrating Landscapes, Canada’s exhibition at the 2012 Venice Biennale, have also been huge: “The connections we made in Venice produced outcomes that we couldn’t possibly have anticipated at the time.” Hurme and her partners have been invited to lecture, sit on juries and committees, and collaborate on projects and competitions abroad. They won prizes at the World Architecture Festival, a P/A Award and coverage in international publications. The contacts made in Venice helped them realize their 2013 Professional Prix de Rome project, in which they co-hosted conversations about architecture in eight world cities.

Migrating Landscapes also helped launch the careers of dozens of young Canadian architects and designers. Andrew Batay-Csorba describes Venice as “a coming-out party” for his firm, Batay-Csorba Architects. Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office tells a similar story. After curating Arctic Adaptations, Canada’s exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale, Lateral was invited to exhibit at the 2015 Chicago Biennial and the 2017 Seoul Biennial (the only Canadians who were).

Being presented internationally also has an intangible value, says Sheppard. Because the Canadian architecture profession is often practice-driven, events such as those in Venice, Chicago and Seoul give architects the opportunity to do speculative work and to address broader social, cultural and political issues through design. This in turn allows them to be anticipatory and projective, take risks and drive culture forward in a way that isn’t always possible in daily practice.

Erica Pecoskie, who in collaboration with George Simionopoulos had work in Migrating Landscapes, agrees: “Seeing what the rest of the world was doing awakened us, and we felt we could do better. It was a catalyst. It gave us the courage to say, ‘We can do it here too!’ and take action.” As a result, they launched Filo Timo, which creates highly sought-after bespoke architectural components.

Support and promotion of architects abroad also creates opportunities for profession-wide business development and national branding. Heather Dubbeldam found this out first-hand after winning the 2016 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome and spending time in Denmark. She says the results of the Danish government’s support and promotion of its architects abroad (for 
example, by organizing events, providing travel grants, and helping Danish architects build international relationships) speak for themselves: BIG, Henning Larsen, 3XN, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, and COBE are just some of the firms doing work in Canada today. In fact, 20 percent of projects by Danish architects are built in other countries, compared to just four percent for Canada. What’s more, Denmark’s reputation as a world architecture leader has boosted other areas of their economy, including tourism, design and architectural education.

Then there are the even less tangible, more spiritual benefits—one only need think of Arthur Erickson, whose sensitivity to place, climate, and built form were shaped by extensive journeys on a scholarship through Europe, the Middle East and Japan, and who helped shape future generations of architects and the very idea of Canadian architecture.

Canada has the talent to compete internationally, but the world won’t know it unless we get behind our architects by supporting and promoting them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a world where people turn to Canadian architects not only for their design 
excellence but also for the unique perspective that Canadians bring to an increasingly fractured world?

Sascha Hastings is a Toronto-based architectural consultant and a past project manager of several Venice design exhibitions.