The Road to Venice

TEXT Jyhling Lee

There is a hopeful new model being developed for Canada’s participation in the 13th Venice Biennale in Architecture, the premier international exposition for architecture. Migrating Landscapes, the selected entry for 2012–along with the assistance of Architecture Canada | Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC)–is ambitiously changing the entire nature of the program from its funding strategy to national inclusivity. Migrating Landscapes has established a process for mobilizing and engaging interest in architecture across the country, appealing in particular to emerging architects and regional grassroots support while at the same time strategically building a foundation of financial support in the lead-up towards its final presence in Venice. 

Since 2010, the RAIC–with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts–has taken on the role of project management for the Biennale program to provide support and a fundraising structure for the selected Canadian team. This much needed role, currently under development, will help sustain the program on an ongoing basis and allows the selected team to focus on the content and evolution of their proposed exhibition entry without the previous financial strain. As a means to build this foundation, Migrating Landscapes has been an ideal and ambitious project model.

Canada has been officially represented on the international stage at the Venice Biennale since 1991, then in 1996, 2000, and every two years following. Nationally, however, general awareness of and interest in Canada’s involvement in the Biennale has been a matter of relatively low public interest. That said, the selected Migrating Landscapes entry is potentially in the process of becoming a success story, offering a new model for engaging national interest in architecture and the Biennale. 

In the past, there have been two types of exhibitions presented at the Venice Biennale, one being practice-based, focusing on a body of work, and the other being curatorial-based, thematically presenting a pre-selected range of built projects. For the Migrating Landscapes project, proposed by the team known as Migrating Landscapes Organizer (MLO)–led by Jae-Sung Chon (an instructor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture), Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic (founding partners of 5468796 Architecture), the distinguishing focus is not on a presentation of their own work or existing architectural works. Instead, MLO has proposed a curatorial platform from which the content of the exhibition could be generated through an inclusive national competition staged through a series of seven regional exhibitions and one national exhibition. These exhibitions, in effect, present a survey of emergent architectural thinking and bring the Biennale to Canada as a means for engaging the national audience in the lead-up to Venice.

Migrating Landscapes is a Canadian project. The curatorial intent is to capture the story of migration and settlement in a new land–a truly Canadian narrative. The story of migration is one that is familiar and personal to our multicultural demographic. Each one of us carries our own personal migration story through which our relationship to “dwelling” and architecture is integrally tied. With this understanding, Migrating Landscapes has poignantly established a common point of departure and an emotional connection that has drawn interest from competition participants, financial sponsors, regional volunteers, and the wider public. The level of support and participation garnered for an architectural project slated for the Venice Biennale has to this point been unprecedented. 

The theme of migration is strengthened by the fact that the exhibition is itself a travelling show. The exhibition moves through seven Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Saskatoon, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg), culminating at the Venice Biennale in August. The exhibition is conceptually and figuratively a landscape. Composed of a series of square wood modules, the exhibition forms an undulating sculptural terrain that is flexible, malleable, and quickly assembled. This landscape becomes the topography within which each competition entry will come to “dwell.” Its distinct aesthetic and material presence establishes a consistent language between each exhibition (while also introducing a pleasantly noticeable wood scent). This highly flexible strategy for absorbing the topography of each competition entry into a seamless topographical whole also becomes the immersive installation landscape through which to experience the exhibit. The strategy also allows it to adapt and morph from exhibition venue to exhibition venue, with the most challenging being the Canadian pavilion in Venice. As a way to test the project in its final space and to bring a piece of Venice to Canada, the layout of each regional exhibition installation follows the outline of a portion of the actual footprint of the Canadian pavilion. 

Taking on an international exhibition at the Venice Biennale is no small logistical or financial undertaking. Migrating Landscapes has distinguished itself by bringing together the impressive involvement and a network of support from across the country. It has taken the scale of the organizational effort and the model for strategic fundraising to a higher level. The main organizational team is composed of the three curators, one administrative coordinator, and eight volunteer regional coordinators who oversee and manage each regional exhibition installation. The designated regional coordinators (who are all alumni of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture) have worked to promote interest and mobilize people within their respective communities, engaging with architectural schools, provincial associations, and cultural organizations. 

The other critical team member is the RAIC Biennale project manager, Sascha Hastings, who is in the process of establishing a greatly improved strategy for fundraising, aided by the general marketing appeal of the Migrating Landscapes project, and by the simple act of starting the fundraising initiative early on. The project has had an impressive track record of connecting to sponsors across the country, and people have responded for a number of reasons. The project is inclusive; it is about supporting the next generation of designers; it acknowledges our cultural diversity; and its presence is both national and international. Growing this network of sponsors has happened in part through a word-of-mouth referral process and through new affiliations made with the help of key influential figures. The sponsors and donors vary widely–from the financial, corporate and construction sectors to provincial architectural associations to a number of architectural practices and private individuals. Bringing the Venice Biennale back to Canada through a series of regional exhibitions has also been essential in making the connection to the project tangible. The result of the collective effort is clear. To date, a total of $384,000 (and climbing) in additional funding has been raised to supplement the $184,000 Biennale base project funding from the Canada Council and an additional $54,000 in other Canada Council program grants. Approximately $170,000 of in-kind donations has also been raised. Although no previous Biennale project has come close to independently raising this amount, it is still a ways from reaching the MLO project budget of $1 million, which is the expected cost of carrying out a project of this scope and quality for the international stage at the Venice Biennale.

What may not be obvious is that Venice is an expensive city with a monopoly on the cost for services, particularly during the alternating Venice Biennale festivals in art and architecture. Project procurement is affe
cted by challenges related to the competition for services, limited supplies, and special equipment available on the island, and by other aspects such as the coordination of works during the critical installation phase in August, which is a holiday month for Italians. As an example of the exorbitant costs involved, transporting an item internationally from Canada to Venice is comparable in cost to locally moving that same item from the Venice port in Tronchetto to the Giardini Pubblici exhibition grounds, a mere 10 kilometres away.

Migrating Landscapes also faces the challenge of designing a compelling exhibition installation and experience within the awkward confines of the Canadian pavilion. Canada is fortunate to have a permanent pavilion within the prime Giardini area amongst the other 29 national pavilions. However, it is tucked away between the British and German pavilions, and there has been some difficulty attracting visitors to the interior of the pavilion due to its introverted architecture. Somehow, the exhibition will need make its presence known outside the building as a way to entice visitors in. Designed by the Italian architect Enrico Peressutti from the Milan-based Studio d’architetti BBPR in 1958, the architectural form of the building is purported to be inspired by the wigwam, which presents a questionable representation of Canada’s architectural identity. Many have struggled with designing an installation for this oddly splayed fan-shaped Canadian pavilion, due to its irregular geometry, substandard ventilation, problems with controlling natural light, and other restrictions. The building and long-term lease of the site are owned by the National Gallery of Canada. However, having recently been designated as a listed heritage building by the Italian government, any wishful thinking with respect to replacing this pavilion with a new one will likely stay as such.

Having firsthand experience assisting with the installation for the Saskatchewan regional exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, the sense of community involvement and volunteer support from local architects, students and carpenters was clear. The design intelligence of the wood modules allowed for the quick and easy creation of the exhibition landscape over the course of two days. The opening event was attended by familiar local supporters and some welcome new participants. My attendance at the recent Ontario regional exhibition and sponsors’ event held in the appropriately dramatic six-storey Santiago Calatrava-designed galleria at Brookfield Place in Toronto further instilled in me a feeling of optimism for the future of Canadian architecture–particularly while in the midst of such a diverse group of key contributors and sponsors from many sectors, all working together to realize the Migrating Landscapes project.

The last of the regional exhibitions have concluded and all of the finalists are now on display at the national exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery for the month of March prior to the final selection. What seems to be clear in the lead-up to this ambitious project at the Venice Biennale are the lessons being learned in the process. Migrating Landscapes has introduced an inclusive new curatorial platform to capture a contemporary expression of Canadian architecture. It has built national interest in and support for architecture by bringing the Biennale to Canada first. It has also set into motion a new strategic approach to fundraising, which will hopefully–with the support of the RAIC–be able to help establish an ongoing and sustainable framework to allow future Canadian teams to fully participate in and reflect the best of Canadian architectural culture on the world stage in Venice.

Beyond Venice, Migrating Landscapes has established a timely and highly relevant national competition. It is a model worthy of consideration in the future as a means to survey the evolving and emergent architectural context of our uniquely diverse and multicultural country. CA

For more information on Migrating Landscapes and the Venice Biennale, please visit www.migratinglandscapes.ca and www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/. 

Jyhling Lee is an architectural graduate, designer and public artist based in Saskatoon and Toronto. Her multidisciplinary practice, Figureground Studio, is focused on the socially enabling role of design within our built environment. 


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