Too Much and Not Enough: Not for Sale! at the Venice Biennale

At the Venice Biennale, the Canadian team tilts at the housing crisis.

The exhibition Not for Sale! reconceives Canada’s pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale as the headquarters for a campaign for equitable access to housing in Canada. Exhibition pin-up boards showcase the work of ten teams of activists, architects, and advocates from across the country. A newly constructed mezzanine provides additional workspace, intended to host architectural students travelling to Venice to join in the advocacy.

TEXT Adele Weder

PHOTOS Maris Mezulis

Any Canadian who agrees to exhibit at the Venice Biennale of Architecture deserves the Order of Canada for sheer pluck. Our mid-century pavilion—a small glass-and-brick nautilus shell punctured by trees—is notoriously difficult to work with. The selected architect-curators receive scant remuneration for weeks of labour, and almost always need to fundraise to cover exorbitant shipping, travel and installation costs. So I’ll start by doffing my hat to this year’s selected team, Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA), for choosing the important but quixotic task of addressing the national housing crisis. 

Anchored by the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the Venice installation, titled Not For Sale!, is offering up a manifesto of demands and a cornucopia of solutions. The curators are five architecture professors (UBC’s Matthew Soules, Sara Stevens, and Tijana Vujosevic; David Fortin and Adrian Blackwell of Waterloo), and Nisga’a architect Simoogit Saa Bax Patrick Stewart.

The pavilion is postered with screenprinted photos of encampments in Canadian cities.

Augmenting this contingent are ten organizations teaming with community leaders and activists, who have collaborated on this project with yet more architects from across the country. This latter group includes Susan Fitzgerald Architecture, LGA Architectural Partners, Haeccity Studio Architecture, SOCA (Studio of Contemporary Architecture), L’OEUF Architects, Atelier Big City and many others renowned for innovative social and communal housing design. 

So, there is no shortage of brains, talent, design skills, and diversity within this illustrious collective of more than a hundred individual contributors. But it makes for many, many cooks in a very small kitchen. And that overcrowding makes for a hot mess of a project, a dog’s breakfast of good intentions. 

Inside the pavilion, it’s quite the graphic riot: upon entering, a visitor is greeted with the 10-point manifesto, and then immersed in a farrago of posters, slogans, publications, blocks of texts, and to-do memes on sticky notes. Marinating in all those words are photographs, charts, some architectural renderings, plans, and a couple of rough models. The pavilion’s actual design transformation is modest, comprising two main features. On the outside: Patrick Stewart’s redefining of the pavilion’s back garden area into a “Land Back” mini-landscape, with Pacific Northwest plant species. On the inside: a stick-frame mezzanine, designed and built to serve as a studio space for UBC and Waterloo students to research and promote the AAHA campaign throughout the spring and fall university semesters. 

One proposal, developed by LGA Architectural Partners, Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, and Gentrification Tax Actions, examines rising housing costs in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

It looks and feels as though you’re walking through an end-of-year crit session. Actually, in some ways you are, since the students are working on Not For Sale! as their academic project for their study-abroad semester. I admire the practicality of converting that snail of a pavilion into a satellite classroom. But is an overwhelmingly two-dimensional text-and-drawing exhibition an effective means of showcasing the power of architecture for a global audience? There is much to read, and no visitor spending the usual half-hour within the pavilion could absorb more than a small fraction of it.

The ten-point AAHA manifesto calls for the return of crown land back to Indigenous peoples; the building of culturally appropriate Indigenous housing, support services, and on-site manufacturing facilities; reparative architecture for historically exploited racialized communities; a new capital-gains tax earmarked for gentrified neighbourhoods; the conversion of surplus public property into housing; purpose-built communities for unhoused people; incentives for cooperative living and collective home ownership; commitment to repurpose surplus space into housing; “mutual aid” communities of inter-supportive elements; and the establishment of a process to increase the quality of urban environments and accessibility of social housing within them.  

Banners created by artist Grey Piitaapan Mudoon announce the manifesto’s demands

That’s the distilled version. The full manifesto text reads as you might expect from group authorship: a rhetorical sprawl that is frequently vague or incomprehensible, with scant mention of architectural design—the most salient value that these and other architects could bring to the housing debate. Here is just the headline, for instance, of manifesto item #10: “We demand a vision and participatory process for housing development that upholds ambient urban ecosystems as a continuously accessible commons necessary for social housing. This process must lead to concrete action to improve the ambient commons.” The AAHA website tables a series of sub-demands for this and other manifesto items. Still, not even the extensive website text offers much in terms of design advocacy, or how they will achieve their demands in the voter-led market economy of Canada. 

Since words are the main public offering from the AAHA team, they should render their words as clearly and carefully as they would choose a building’s cladding or design its structural framework. The very term manifesto of demands is jarringly presumptuous for a list of diverse requests compiled by academics with no leverage to enforce such demands. The team will need to persuade voters and policy makers; vagueness and convoluted rambling will not help their cause.

Let’s consider AAHA’s primary demand: “Land Back.” A whopping 89 percent of Canada—almost nine million square kilometres—is crown land, nominally owned by the federal and provincial governments. Within the AAHA group itself, there is no consensus of what “Land Back” means. When I asked some members, they told me it would probably mean the return of a small percentage—perhaps five, ten, fifteen percent of those 8,886,356 square kilometres. To others—especially, and not surprisingly, Indigenous participants—it means exactly what the manifesto states: all crown land back, every square centimetre. 

Students and collaborators gather in the pavilion’s courtyard, renamed the Land Back garden.

If and when that land and its income-generating resources revert to Indigenous stewardship, the Canadian political economy will transform in a major way. Even if the transformation involves co-ownership, the governments’ power and financial strength will almost certainly diminish. You can support that consequence wholeheartedly as historic justice—a fair and necessary transition—but you cannot then assume that our governments will have the wherewithal to bankroll the manifesto’s funding demands for housing, urban revitalization, and reparation payments. 

Simoogit Saa Bax Patrick Stewart recognizes such a major transition cannot happen quickly or easily. “There will have to be discussion and consensus-making,” he told me. “Colonization has taken 500 years to take root, so it will take time to decolonize. If it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it could happen in the time of my children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren.”

A realistic timeline and invitation to wide-open discussion, though, doesn’t quite align with Adrian Blackwell’s  commandeering rhetoric at the Biennale. “Part of that is to grab attention,” responds Stewart. “We’ve been silent for so long; now’s the time to start making noise. I look at Adrian and Matthew as lightning rods, rallying the team.”

“There are ideological differences within and amongst some of the teams, for sure,” allows Soules. “The ambitions of the project are further ahead of where the project itself is right now.” He points out that the UBC and Waterloo students will spend the next two semesters researching and refining these manifesto points into more detailed and sophisticated directives. So perhaps over the next six months and beyond, the AAHA team will reach a consensus on the manifesto details and iron out the kinks. Still, a half-dozen university professors handing their students a prescriptive list of demands is not likely to result in a hard-nosed evaluation of that list. 

Curiously, the AAHA team does not mention the effects of shortterm rental platforms or predatory lending policies by banks, both of which are major contributors to housing shortages in Canada and elsewhere. Nor does it explore or condemn how the new mobility of global capital has architecturally distorted our housing paradigms. That subject was brilliantly analyzed by Soules himself in his 2021 book Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the 21st Century. I’d surmise that if the entire pavilion was focused on this book alone, it would make for a stronger and clearer manifesto. 

“We want to politicize architecture in Canada, where architecture tends to be seen as a service role only,” responds Soules. “Architecture as a discipline and architecture as a political entity can co-exist. Architects can play an active role in challenging the current housing system.” 

Architecture is indeed political, not least because “form follows finance,” as architectural historian Carol Willis wrote in her 1995 treatise on skyscrapers. Delving into broader issues beyond form and outside the design profession’s core expertise, however, has its challenges. For instance, when I spoke to some of the core members of the AAHA team, they appeared to be seriously misinformed about the precedents, logistics, feasibility, and drawbacks of a hypothecated tax, the basis for the manifesto’s gentrification-tax demand. That’s hardly surprising, since tax law is not an architect’s day job. They might have presented a far stronger case if they had focused more on the value of architecture—at which they excel. 

The Biennale is an excellent place to raise questions, but a lousy place to claim to have answers or moral authority. For many residents of Venice, it’s us—the foreign curators, collaborators, visitors, and journalists—who are the interlopers, the economic colonizers, the sons-of-bitches displacing longstanding residents from their homes through our prolific use of Airbnb and our usurping of their public gardens. They suffer as well as benefit from the economic activity generated by the Biennale and other international attractions, just as Canadians suffer as well as benefit from our own high-octane economy. 

So how does one effectively showcase the sociopolitical power of architecture? At this year’s Biennale, no team did it better than the Austrians. Curated by the architecture collective AKT and architect Hermann Czech, their exhibition documents their efforts to transform Austria’s pavilion and the small patch of garden fenced off behind it into a freely accessible public space, via a steel-rod bridge over the Biennale wall. The Austrians’ correspondence progresses hopefully until six weeks before the Biennale opening, when the Venice authorities categorically deny them permission to bridge the wall, and the half-finished structure halts abruptly at the top of its stairway. When you climb up onto the platform and behold the curious passers-by a few metres away, you experience viscerally and directly how the built environment could foster inclusivity and equality, but is often thwarted in achieving these aims.

Meanwhile, a few hundred metres away on the other side of the Biennale wall, you can see, in response to the various international pavilions’ earnestly progressive exhortations, the local view. A pair of wooden park benches is festooned with a two-part graffito scrawled in chalk: AGAINST CULTURE SOLD / IN THE FORM OF INSTITUTIONALIZED ART. That would be us: the invasive foreign architects, activists, and journalists who are—in their eyes—not heroes, just rapacious vendors of culture. 

Never mind. For several team members that I spoke with, what happens at the Biennale pavilion is largely beside the point. It’s not the physical installation but the campaign itself that will carry their variegated messages. “We always wanted what we physically did in Venice not to be the main thing,” says Soules. “The creation of this new group is the thing. You’re going to see a whole series of events unfold across Canada during the next three years.” 

To be sure, the AAHA team can claim a few significant Biennale accomplishments. They persuaded the Canada Council to allow student work on and at the pavilion for academic credit, which could be a useful precedent for the future, given the Biennale project’s perennial funding struggles. Their workspace mezzanine shows an imaginative design solution to an awkward space, making active student research visible
to the public. 

So let’s wish this team well for its ongoing campaign: perhaps those students now at work in Venice will bring a reality check to their professors. It’s important to stir the pot. But in a capitalist democracy, presenting solutions on a platter will prove to be considerably more challenging.

Adele Weder is a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.

CONTRIBUTORS TO NOT FOR SALE! A Better Tent City Waterloo Region; Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia; Alex Wilson, University of Saskatchewan; At Home in the North; Atelier Big City; Bâtir son quartier; Blackwell; Canadian Cohousing Network; Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal (CEUM); Comité logement Ville-Marie; CP Planning; David T Fortin Architect Inc.; FBM architecture | interior design | planning; Gentrification Tax Action; Grounded Architecture Inc.; Haeccity Studio Architecture; Idle No More; Interloge; Ipek Türeli, McGill University; Katlia Lafferty, National Indigenous Housing Network; Keele Eglinton Residents; L’OEUF Architecture; Lancelot Coar, University of Manitoba; LGA Architectural Partners; Maison du développement durable; Maison du Savoir et de la Littérature; Navigator Street Outreach Program; Nisga’a Nation; One House Many Nations; Ouri Scott, Urban Arts Architecture Inc.; Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust; Sarah Silva, Hiyám Housing; Simoogit Saa Bax, Dr. Patrick R. Stewart Architect; SOCA (Studio of Contemporary Architecture); SOLO Architecture; SvN Architects + Planners; Sylvia McAdam, Windsor University; Table de concertation du Faubourg Saint-Laurent; This Should Be Housing; Toronto Tiny Shelters; tuf lab; Xalek/Sekyu Siyam Chief Ian Campbell, Skwxwú7mesh úxwumixw, Squamish Nation.