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Waterloo University's Hylozoic Ground project .
Waterloo University's Hylozoic Ground project .

Lisa Rochon: Cityspace

A Canadian brings the light to Venice Add to ...

In his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino described Zora as a city of unforgettable qualities. "The city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember."

This depiction of the city as a vessel for powerful collective memories is one of the images that has made Calvino's book a cult classic. You can read Calvino's linked poems in it as meditative journeys into mystic fiction or as a straight-up tribute to Venice (the book's narrator is the adventurer Marco Polo, who was Venetian). But, this time around, I'm most intrigued by the Italian writer's reference to the lightness of a city's design, like a honeycomb of cells.

A honeycomb of cells, both artificial and organic, dry and wet, is what Canadian architect Philip Beesley will unveil for Canada's official entry for this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, the most prestigious international event for contemporary architecture. His Hylozoic Ground is a reef of white fronds that will infiltrate the Canadian pavilion within the historic exhibition grounds (Venice's Giardini Pubblici). It's a highly speculative piece of artful architecture sweetened by its lightness. In a world made increasingly heavy by urban concrete, Beesley is floating some ideas of next-generation architecture with his diaphanous design, pointing ever so gently toward materials that are light, healing and can potentially renew themselves.

All is not lightness in Venice. A furor has erupted among German architects over whether or not to demolish the country's Nazi-style pavilion in the Giardini. If the monstrous building is allowed to stand, decades after it was horribly Nazified in 1938, German artists and architects will be permanently punished for the heaviness of their country's past sins.

This weekend, members of Beesley's team leave Toronto for Venice to begin construction in the Canadian pavilion. Beesley joins them next week, along with some 30 architecture- and art-student volunteers from across Europe. They're gathering, says Beesley, to participate in a labour-intensive "quilting bee" that will produce an inhabitable kinetic sculpture. Hylozoic Ground is electronically wired to recoil from or reach out to a visitor. Architecture that feels? Not yet. But design might some day show its feelings toward human beings and respond emotionally. Given that we're drowning in lifeless, aesthetically bankrupt architecture, that's an ambition worth exploring.

For now, as experienced recently during a sneak preview at the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto, the beautiful mutant designs by Beesley move unpredictably and without warning. The lightweight components are made of acrylic - true, that's an eco-pity - and the myriad pieces are fitted with microprocessors and proximity sensors. Imagine tens of thousands of white fronds and whiskers responding shyly in an exhibition hall packed with people.

Throughout the ages, architecture has almost always been heavy - firmly rooted in principles of solidity and durability. But Hylozoic Ground has its creative roots in the study of geotextiles begun some 15 years ago when Beesley, then a young Prix de Rome scholar, was assisting with excavations on the Palatine, the spread of hilltops that overlooks the ancient Roman Forum. Since then, he's created lightweight geodesic systems that seem to float above or grow out of the ground. For Haystack Veil (1998), Beesley cut and bundled 30,000 sapling twigs, applying his obsessive passion for finding new forms of architecture to construct a rustic perforated blanket, measuring one-quarter of an acre, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Maine.

For Beesley, the ultimate challenge is how to seamlessly marry artificial structure with organic growth. It takes a leap of the imagination, but he wants us to give it a try. Within the embrace of the honeycomb structure being installed in Venice, barely detectable by the eye, a wet chemistry is at work. Designed with collaborators Rachel Armstrong of University College London and Martin Hanczyc of Syddansk Universitet in southern Denmark to mimic a human lymph system, small glass flasks are connected to a water-treatment system that trickles throughout the installation.

Water taken from the Venice lagoon drips through the flasks. The carbon contained within the lagoon water is captured to produce tiny limestone accretions. The limestone could help to reinforce the foundations of Venice, shoring up the sinking of what is effectively a city on stilts. A note to skeptics: This is an admittedly gestural, speculative kind of intervention. But the reality is that sirens warning of serious flooding have become the norm during the winter months in Venice. A war against water is raging, with dire predictions that Venice could be submerged by the end of the century. About 80 mobile floodgates, each weighing 300 tonnes, are being constructed by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (CNV) for an estimated $3-billion - that's an example of heavy infrastructure.

At 2,000 square feet, the Canadian pavilion is one of the most diminutive of the permanent pavilions dotted throughout the lush exhibition gardens. The individual national pavilions are, for the most part, lyrical expressions by great masters of architecture. The Dutch pavilion was designed in 1954 by Gerrit T. Rietveld, the Finnish pavilion by the great modernist Alvar Aalto in 1956 and the Austrian pavilion by Josef Hoffmann in 1934.

The Canadian pavilion, however, was designed in 1958 not by one of our own but by Milanese architecture firm BBPR as part of Italy's Second World War reparations to Canada. This curious gift is a tectonic interpretation of a wigwam, splayed around a large oak tree, as tired and clichéd as the old Bonanza television series of the same era. The Canadian pavilion lacks the sublime modern presence of, say, the Danish and the Nordic pavilions, where last year's sweeping, highly ironic installation called The Collectors demonstrated a healthy vision and budget.

Though long under-funded, the Canadian pavilion's problems are relatively minor, especially when compared with Germany's beast of a pavilion, which began as a white classical temple in 1909 and was hastily reconstructed in 1938 by Ernst Haiger to suit a Nazi style of architecture. Delicate Ionic pillars were replaced by formidable Teutonic-style columns, and a peaked, pedimented roof was bluntly squared off. It's easy to imagine Mussolini and Hitler saluting each other - which they did - inside the front entrance. It's time to demolish that heavy stone structure and get on with life, a sentiment publicly declared by Arno Sighard Schmid, the president of the Federal Chamber of German Architects. Members of the pro-pavilion camp argue keeping the building allows history to be etched in stone rather than rewritten. But it also restricts future architects and artists to a constant rehashing of the past.

Architecture morphs and changes all the time. Buildings go up, they come down. It's a sign of a healthy economy and vibrant society. Of all the calamities a city can endure, however, the greatest disaster is its disappearance. As Calvino wrote, "Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The Earth has forgotten her." This summer, I'm thinking about Venice, where creativity, intelligence and lightness should be brought to bear.

The 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale runs from Aug. 29 to Nov. 21 (www.labiennale.org/en/architecture).

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