Extraction: Canada at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

Photo © 2016 Laurian Ghinitoiu. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 Laurian Ghinitoiu. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.

by Pierre Bélanger, Landscape Architect & Urbanist, ASLA, CSLA, SBA

The Canadian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is the first pavilion to be located outside in the Giardini during its 40-year history, since the beginning of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1975. The project explores the systems, spaces and scales of Canada as a global resource empire under the banner of the theme EXTRACTION. The project calls attention to both the territories of extraction that cities rely upon and the histories of colonization in these territories. In other words, the project is entirely about land, law and territory.

Photo © 2016 Nils Koenning. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 Nils Koenning. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.

The Canadian exhibition itself entails the planting of survey stake—the preeminent legal and technological instrument to mark territory and map—at the intersection of former and future empires in the Giardini of the Biennale: UK, France and Canada. Facing the British Pavilion, visitors are invited to kneel down and look through a keyhole in the survey stake to experience a second component of the project: a film of the territories of extraction across 800 years with 800 images, from 2015 to 1215, the birth of the British Magna Carta.

In the foreground of a blockade placed in front of the Canadian Pavilion, a wall filled with gold ore has been erected as a protest to Canada’s colonial foreign policy of extraction. In collaboration with governmental authorities in Italy, the mineral ore is sourced from an abandoned and contaminated Canadian gold mining operation in Sardinia, Italy. At the centre of the exhibition, the survey stake itself is forged and cast out of solid 18kt gold, by goldsmith studio Atelier Hume.

Ultimately, the project shows how Canada has become a global resource empire, and how Canada has become the preeminent extraction nation on the planet. Its foreign policy today is one that is entirely based on colonial forms of resource extraction worldwide.

Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
What is unique about the Exhibition? What are the implications for the design disciplines?

It’s important to bring the conversation of design back to the fundamentals. The basic element of land—in all its political, ecological, social and technological dimensions of the living world—is often overlooked. I believe we need to act accordingly and make land relevant to pressing questions and critical matters of urbanism to a very large audience of professionals and publics.

What I believe is of considerable importance is the presence of landscape architecture across many other fields and disciplines, in the form of exhibitions that speak, share, interact and engage with different people. We have had a lot of children approach the project and lure in their parents. We specifically under-designed the project and augmented the texture and interaction with the site of the project, in order to engage senses of sounds, touch, bodily contact, sight, in ways that appeal to a much larger audience than drawings, models or writings on the wall would typically do.

Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
How is the Pavilion received by visitors? By other artists and architects?

The response and feedback has been great and if anything, overwhelming.

From a professional and disciplinary perspective, everyone is excited by the outdoor space and the experience of a horizontal installation. Typical exhibitions are traditionally very linear: standing upright and viewing vertical elements on walls, in interior spaces with very little sun light and little fresh air. This perpetuates a certain spatial dichotomy and social inertia. Our project establishes a horizontal relationship with the viewer, at a personal one-on-one level, in order to magnify the territorial nature of the subject matter of extraction. It seems counterintuitive, but it works really well.

Photo © 2016 Laurian Ghinitoiu. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 Laurian Ghinitoiu. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
There was a large project team involved with the development of EXTRACTION. How do they describe the project?

Kathy Velikov from the design research practice RVTR said the following about the purpose and intention of EXTRACTION:

“Architecture and urbanization are material practices. Buildings, infrastructures, cities cannot be built without first extracting the materials needed for them from the land. The practices of building and extraction are intrinsically linked.

Buildings and cities can no longer be thought of as simply as things in themselves, but need to be recognized as materializations of far more vast, and oftentimes distant global territories. These territories are real places, with specific histories, geologies and indigenous cultures, where often violent forms of bio- and geopolitics are practiced and thereby implicated in the things we build.

Extraction needs to be understood as a form of urbanization. Extraction practices colonize remote landscapes and indigenous lands with infrastructural technologies and architectures—from roads, rails and pipelines to processing plants, storage facilities and worker camps and towns. Historically, and into the present day, this urbanization has been realized through various forms of violence, both political and ecological.  But perhaps it does not have to be so. Transforming these practices would require more complex frameworks of collaboration, negotiation and implementation.

The urbanism and architecture of extraction is an arena where the design professions can and should be involved in envisioning how to construct less violent relations between contested human inhabitations and between ourselves and lands, waters, atmospheres and other species.”

Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.

Colin Ripley, also from RVTR, added the following on the responsibility and accountability of the profession of architecture and the design disciplines:

“Cities can’t exist without the extraction of resources from the hinterland. This has always been the case – think of the situation of Rome and its water supply, for one simple example. It’s a mistake – an error propagated by modern ideas of separation and difference – to think of buildings, cities and landscapes of extraction as different things rather than as connected pieces of a single system. We need to stop making this mistake.

As architects we can and should start to ask some difficult questions – but questions that I believe are inherently, obviously, within the realm of architecture. Let’s start with: what are the materials in that material? How many of us know, really, what is contained within the materials that we spec? And then, where did those materials come from? What were the conditions of their extraction from the earth and transformation into that item that we found on the internet? What violence are we implicated in by choosing these sources?

Thinking more broadly, we can start to examine and investigate the urban systems of extraction and accumulation – hinterland and cities – and start to understand as professionals concerned above all with the quality of place first how these systems operate and then crucially what we can do to design better systems.

This needs to be a central conversation within architecture, internationally but also particularly in Canada, as we move forward into the next stage of human development.”

Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.

Ecologist and planner Nina-Marie Lister (co-editor of the book we are currently writing, titled EXTRACTION EMPIRE) had this to say about the project:

“Architects work in the material palette of bricks, mortar and people. This palette depends on extraction of resources which can only happen because of Canada’s continuing separation of surface land and subsurface mineral rights. While architects focus on making buildings, their projects are situated in and are sustained by land.

Our hope is that this project provokes a new discourse in the intimate relationship between landscape and architecture, and as such, stimulates the realization that ultimately, in Canada specifically and globally by extension, landscape is architecture.

Without extraction of resources, there would be no architecture and no urbanization. Cities are dependent on the resource wealth of the hinterland; they are dependent on a regular supply of resources to feed their growth, development and consumption — processes that are invisible to urban dwellers because they are both out of sight, out of bounds and underground. It is this culture of extraction (rather than the mining industry itself) that is the focus of this exhibit and the subsequent tour and book. We are preoccupied with the questions of land and territory that are fundamental to the global culture of extraction, from Canadian to global operations and the scales and processes they encumber.”

Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 OPSYS. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
What impact might this pavilion have on future pavilions? Might there be more that explore similar themes/are non-traditional?

It took us a year and a half in order to gain access to the exterior space of the Giardini with a considerable level of back-and-forth with Architectural Superintendence of the Biennale, the Municipality of Venice and their Parks Department. We felt it was important to do this since the location, orientation and alignment of the project in the Giardini, belong the Pines and Plane trees, as well as at the junction of the UK, French and Canada Pavilions was geographically and political significant. There have been some attempts to place projects on the front porch of National Pavilions in the past history of the Architecture Biennale, but there is a huge legacy of doing this during the Art Biennale (every other year).

Also, worth noting, Canada’s exhibition at the 1851 World Fair in London was outside of the main exhibition hall, and outside of the walls of the Crystal Palace. We’re simply drawing from that very, very old legacy…one of not conforming to colonial spaces of state exhibitions.

Photo © 2016 Nils Koenning. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.
Photo © 2016 Nils Koenning. Courtesy of Pierre Bélanger.

Given this, we’re borrowing from that tradition of creative engagement since the grounds of the Giardini are so beautiful and exterior spaces offer incredible climates to sit, watch, talk, discuss and have fun while engaging in the serious matter of the exhibition, by fun. The German Pavilion was clever this year by opening it up to the public, and making openings in the walls to let people in, but as you know, making open and accessible projects is not simply and engenders a whole set of complexities (security, maintenance, context) that several curators or practitioners prefer to avoid.

I can only hope that more and more projects in the future capitalize on working outside and engaging the ground more and more, figuratively, literally and politically. The ground is the future battleground of the most important challenges ahead of us, and this is a simple way of grounding contemporary subjects in matters of terrain and territory, land and landscape.

The 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale runs until November 27, 2016. For more information, click here.

Canada Pavilion
2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

Commissioner: Art Gallery of Alberta / Catherine Crowston
Curator: OPSYS / Pierre Bélanger

Project Team:

OPSYS / Christopher Alton / Zannah Matson
Ryerson University / Ecological Design Lab / Nina-Marie Lister
RVTR / Geoff Thün / Kathy Velikov / Colin Ripley
Hume Atelier / Kevin Hume / Genevieve Ennis Hume
M+B Studio / Troels Bruun / Luca Delisle
Blackwell Studio / Kelsey Blackwell
Beites & Co. / Steven Beites
Jacob Moginot
Alessandra Lai
Massimo Benedetti
Michael Awad
Sam Gillis
Aya Abdallah
Emanuela Innelli
Olga Semenovych
Jane Zhang
Tiffany Dang
Hamed Bukhamseen

Sponsors: Canada Council for the Arts, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Landscape Architecture Canada
Foundation, Ontario Association of Architects, The Walrus Foundation, MIT Press, RBC Foundation, IGEA SPA, Gloria Irene Taylor.

Events & Partnerships: Influentials.ca / Rich Bruggeman

Please note: An earlier version of this article stated that the Canadian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is the first ever national pavilion curated by a landscape architect. This statement is incorrect and has been removed for accuracy.