On a brutally hot summer day, a shady courtyard – with a bench to sit down – provides a welcome respite from the sun. I found myself in such a spot just before I entered the main show at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the giant international exhibition that runs until November in this ancient city.
And that moment of shelter proved to be good preparation for the show, since the title of this year’s Biennale is “Freespace” – as the curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin’s office Grafton Architects, put it, they’re looking for “architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project.”
That is a remarkably broad theme, and the show is accordingly varied, with a strong emphasis on architecture that generates public space and serves the public good. And Canada’s contribution, “Unceded” – a set of arguments for Indigenous values in architecture – serves as a fitting postscript for the whole, unwieldy thing.
The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale – which opened in late May – consists broadly of two parts. One is the central show, curated by Farrell and McNamara at the 16th-century naval yard known as the Arsenale. They’ve invited 21 architects incuding the Canadian Alison Brooks, BIG and Studio Gang, to create installations that address the Freespace theme. As in most architecture shows, the results are a mix of photographs, models and physical works, ranging from documentary photos models and mockups to, essentially, installation art.
The second component is the set of exhibitions representing different countries, this year 65 of them, which occupy various venues – some of them in national pavilions. The Canadian pavilion re-opened late this spring after a three-year restoration; the National Gallery is presenting a separate exhibition about the design and history of that place, and so Unceded occupies a different space in the Arsenale.
It’s a long road to make it there through the 300-metre-long Arsenale exhibition, which is a massive agglomeration that’s roughly coherent and sometimes fascinating.
Brooks, who is based in London, has created life-size wooden models that capture moments from her firm’s high-quality housing designs, manifesting her position that such ordinary buildings can and should have spaces that elevate the spirit.
Nearby, the Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum displays a set of ordinary objects from a Bengali household – a fishing trap, a daybed – evoking the courtyard life of the Ganges delta, and an architecture that’s both private and communal. Meanwhile, the Zurich architects Martin and Elisabeth Boesch present a beautiful set of drawings and diagrams depicting the adaptive reuse of various buildings, and capturing the complex beauty of design that doesn’t start from scratch.
After all this comes Unceded. It poses a grand philosophical question: What can Indigenous thinking and spirituality bring to the world of architecture? To answer this, the exhibition brings together 18 Indigenous architects led by Douglas Cardinal, who collaborated on the curation with architect-academic David Fortin and curator Gerald McMaster.
In the exhibition design, led by Cardinal’s office, the videos are presented on curved screens that provide a dramatic contrast to the aged masonry of the Isolotto. Likewise, they prominently feature imagery of natural landscapes, which are – as one of the videos reminds us immediately – integral to Indigenous experience.
The installation represents the work of these 18 architects, and the historic and intellectual context in which they work, through videos on four themes: Resilience, Sovereignty, Colonization and Indigeneity. These are essentially short documentaries that outline the experience of Indigenous people in Canada since colonization – often with a starkly critical tone, led by Cardinal’s poised indignation.
But there’s a strong storytelling aspect to the presentation as well. Two university students are on staff at the pavilion at a time to discuss the history and the architecture. And in the videos, the architects talk about their family's experiences of residential schools, the exclusion of Indigenous people from the architectural profession, and their own explorations of what an Indigenous architecture could be. Presented conversationally and at length, these are not easy to boil down, but there are common themes: a sense of community; to practising and building in an ethical manner, “acting in a good way,” as Mr. Fortin puts it in a video; to a commitment to the natural world; and to deep consultation with the users of a building, a point that’s made forcefully by Wanda Dalla Costa, a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta who now teaches at Arizona State University.
How all this translates into actual buildings is not, however, especially clear. The architecture that shows up in the videos does not have a consistent visual language, nor does it generally mimic traditional building forms from different peoples and regions. Rather, the architects included are exploring how to combine traditional symbolism and spatial ideas with Modernist concepts. The strongest work in this vein comes from Cardinal, whose stature in Canadian architecture is assured, and the talented emerging architect Alfred Waugh of Formline.
Seen in the context of the Biennale, the ideas in Unceded resonate. There is a broad global conversation about how the act of building can be ethical, meaningful and of communal value. But I left the show waiting to see more of the built work. How will the small group of Indigenous architects now active in Canada translate these values into meaningful structures, now that they’re finding a free space to do so, and now that the world is ready to listen and to learn?