Editorial: Venice Redux

At La Biennale di Venezia, that six-month-long cultural Olympics, the oddly shaped  Canadian Pavilion has long vexed the many architects and artists commissioned to represent our nation. Designed in 1957 by Enrico Peressutti of the Milan architectural studio BBPR, it is evocative of a nautalus shell or snail, its Fibonaccian proportions largely indifferent to the practical display of architecture and art. Its mass of brick, wood, steel and glass curls around a central support column abutting an outdoor courtyard and pair of trees encased in glass, though many an architect would trade those dramatic features for more specialized curatorial needs, such as an on-site bathroom. On rare occasions, the Pavilion’s unusual volume has been ideal, notably for Philip Beesley’s 2010 Hylozoic Ground, whose acrylic lattice hugged its curving walls like living stalactites. But it hasn’t been so congenial for more straightforward installations, such as SweaterLodge, the 2006 installation by Bill Pechet and Stephanie Robb, in which the team’s gigantic West Coast fleece jacket was scrunched awkwardly within its rigidly proscriptive space, inadvertently strengthening the regional metaphor.

Canadian Pavilion
Canadian Pavilion 1957 or 1958, in the Giardini di Castello, Venice. Photo: NGC

Now, after 60 years, the Canadian Pavilion is finally getting its overdue transformation—a renovation and de facto reconstruction, and the promise of an exhibition space equipped to current professional standards. In partnership with Biennale organizers and the Venice Superintendent for Architectural Heritage,and with collaborative help from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the National Gallery of Canada is overseeing the $3-million overhaul. The transformation team includes Canadians Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Bryce Gauthier and Gordon Filewych, along with Alberico Barbiano di Belgiojoso and Troels Bruun. 

Located in the Giardini di Castello section of Venice, the Pavilion won’t be completed soon enough for the 2018 Biennale team to install in time for this year’s opening. Douglas Cardinal’s UNCEDED: Voices of the Land project will instead open on May 26 at the Arsenale site a kilometre away. But it gives us hope for the next Biennale, as well as double the reason to celebrate this year. Except for something we might gently point out: the Biennale’s chosen architects still have to bankroll most of their expenses themselves. The prestige of being selected to represent Canada in Venice usually comes with the imperative to spend as much or more time on fundraising than on creation; tales abound of Canada’s Biennale representatives mortgaging their homes and incurring years of debt in exchange for the honour. Earlier this year, the Canada Council for the Arts announced it would double its usual Biennale funding to $500,000. But that amount still does not come close to covering the enormous costs of researching, creating, shipping, staffing and promoting a major international six-month exhibition on the other side of the ocean. Why are we short-changing the creators who will be showcasing Canadian culture on such a highly visible international forum?

The Pavilion has served as a monument to our national architectural identity in the postwar years during Canada’s emergence as a cultural presence on the world stage, as the National Gallery of Canada observed last summer in its announcement of the impending restoration. Now that the monument is getting the transformative attention it has long needed, it’s time to direct the same attention to the artists and architects who activate it.