Watching movies as a Canadian can create a weird sense of displacement. If you know the country’s biggest cities, you find yourself noticing familiar places: A glamorous Paris street is actually in Old Montreal. That Ivy League university campus? The University of Toronto. Canadian architecture appears onscreen all the time – but in costume.
This phenomenon is the basis for Canada’s national exhibition at the Venice Biennale for Architecture, which officially opened in late May. Impostor Cities, curated by the Montreal architect and academic David Theodore with Thomas Balaban Architect.
On screen, “Canadian cities can always turn into somewhere else – Boston, Montreal or Paris,” says Dr. Theodore, a professor at McGill University. “We often think that architecture is shaped by climate or culture or local knowledge. It’s shocking that these buildings can so easily appear to be somewhere else.”
For the project, Dr. Theodore and collaborators TBA mined more than 3,000 films and TV shows filmed in Canada for recognizable glimpses. Editor John Gurdebeke assembled these into a video installation, which is playing inside the Canadian Pavilion in Venice.
That 1958 building is also surrounded by a greenscreen, and visitors using an app can see the space transformed into Canadian buildings such as Vancouver’s Robson Square. The latter, the prominent public complex by Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, appears as Pyongyang in the 2014 film The Interview. (“That’s one of my favourites,” Dr. Theodore says with a laugh.)
So what does all this say about Canadian architecture? What does it mean that our cities – or pieces of them at least – seem to end up on film so often?
Dr. Theodore suggests that the high competence of the Canadian film industry, and tax incentives, are relevant. But there is also a generic quality to Canadian buildings, he adds, “in the sense that the culture that created them exists in other places.” The 1970s concrete modernism of Robson Square looks – at least vaguely -- similar to buildings in Eastern Europe and West Africa. And the Canadian neoclassicism of the mid-19th century is not wildly different from that of New England.
In this sense the exhibition poses a big philosophical question: How do buildings create cultural meaning? And what makes the architecture of Canada specifically Canadian, anyway? If anything? Theorists have been struggling with that question for half a century, and there are no really good answers.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, for the exhibition to be representing Canada in Venice. The Biennale is an exchange of ideas – and a social gathering – for architectural thinkers. National exhibitions always sit alongside the central show of the Biennale, which currently has the theme “How Will We Live Together?” The main exhibition incorporates the biomorphic installation Grove by Canadian Philip Beesley. Across town, Ghetto by Henriquez Partners Architects is up in a parallel exhibition.
Of course, few Canadians will get to see any of this in person, thanks to travel restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even most of the Impostor Cities project team has not been able to go to Venice in 2021. The exhibition was scheduled to open last May, before the biennale was delayed by the pandemic.
However, an excellent web-based exhibition at ImpostorCities.com brings some of the effect home – with an added distance that seems apt. “You’re getting a mediated effect,” says Mr. Balaban. “Now, perhaps, you can see someone on Instagram playing with the effect on the building. There are layers upon layers.” Which is how the world sees Canada, and so much of how we live now: at a remove, on a screen.
Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.