The Canadian Centre for Architecture is getting a new director, and she promises that the institution will keep asking big questions.
Giovanna Borasi, who is now chief curator at the Montreal-based institution, will move up to the role of director in January. She replaces Mirko Zardini, who has held the position for more than a decade.
In an interview this week, Borasi suggested she was likely to continue CCA’s recent curatorial pattern of exhibitions and events. A typical show has been centred around an idea – such as today’s vision of “happiness” – rather than particular buildings or places. It has been distinctly international. And it has addressed the largest of social issues, from income inequality to climate change.
“Our specialty is to take a broad societal issue, and bring it into a dialogue with architecture,” she said this week. But Borasi, who was raised in Italy and began her career as a design journalist, emphasized a desire to reach out to a broad audience through the institution’s programming and also through new forms, such as by producing documentary films.
Borasi has been at the CCA off and on since 2005, first as a curator of contemporary architecture and then as chief curator. She has the firm endorsement of the CCA’s animating force: Phyllis Lambert, the architect, curator and patron who founded the CCA in 1979 and remains on its board of directors. Borasi is “an amazing person,” Lambert said in an interview, “much respected and much loved by everyone at CCA.”
As for the institution, “The mission has always been the same: architecture as a public concern,” Lambert said. “You have to be relevant. I’m not sure that people will knock themselves out to hear Palladio" – the great Venetian architect of the Renaissance. "We’ll get to Palladio! But the real interest now is what’s happening in the environment, to health, and so on.”
Shows on those themes – notably Out of Gas, Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis – have been important under Zardini’s leadership. Another element has been an emphasis on CCA’s archives, which are a resource of global significance and which are widely available on its excellent website.
During Zardini’s tenure, the institution has received donations from architects, landscape architects and historians of international importance – including Pritzker Prize winner Álvaro Siza Vieira, the eminent B.C. landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Kenneth Frampton, the most influential architectural historian alive.
That list is impressive but has little to do directly with Canada. When I pointed this out to Lambert, she countered that the institution is collecting materials from prominent Canadian figures such as Saucier + Perrotte, Patkau Architects, KPMB and Shim-Sutcliffe.
But focusing on Canada has not been CCA’s intention. “Architecture is a global discourse, and it almost always has been,” Lambert says. “A building is in one place, but a book can travel.”
If CCA has had a weakness in the past decade, it has been that its curatorial approach – highly subtle, and deeply informed by the archive – has sometimes felt detached from urban issues in Montreal and in Canada.
Borasi says that “exploring new media and new formats” is a goal of hers. One step is a set of documentary films, which are meant to travel.
The first of these, What it Takes To Make A Home, made with director Daniel Schwartz examines the issue of homelessness – and the response of architects Michael Maltzan in Los Angeles and Alexander Hagner in Vienna, spanning political action and design. (It will screen in Toronto at the new Architecture and Design Film Festival in November.) The next two films will cover singles, and then aging in the city.
In describing her view on the institution, Borasi drew an interesting comparison. “Maybe it’s because I come from a journalistic background, but I want CCA to be like The Guardian [newspaper],” she said. “It is an independent voice, with a very specific point of view, which you can challenge or be skeptical, but you know that it will always be there to point you to things that are fundamental to look at.”