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A series of twelve carvings were commissioned from local Inuit artists to document key Nunavut buildings and typologies from the 20th century.

It's a lot of ground to cover: almost two million square kilometres, 25 communities, and 100 years of history. All in a museum show that fills a single room.

That's the challenge for architects at Toronto's Lateral Office as they bring their ideas about Nunavut to the Venice Architecture Biennale this week. The exhibition – called Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 – employs a wide lens through which it examines the architecture of the past, from whale-blubber stations onward; presents models of the towns and settlements in which many Inuit, who are traditionally semi-nomadic, now live; and proposes ideas for the future that include networks of architecture, institutions and infrastructure in a region where building anything is radically difficult.

"It's a region that is awe-inspiring in its beauty and its complexity and its strangeness," says Lateral's Lola Sheppard. She and fellow principal Mason White have visited Nunavut dozens of times over the past five years, researching the history and the current state of the territory's communities and buildings, and they see important challenges in its profound state of flux.

The Inuit "have gone from igloos to the Internet in 60 years," Sheppard says. "We're trying to establish what a Canadian Arctic urbanism would look like. I don't think we know what that is yet, at least in [Nunavut]."

The show, a complex collective effort involving community groups in the Arctic as well as architects and architecture schools across the country, will represent Canada at the Biennale, the world's premiere architectural event, which will include exhibits from 66 nations, and is expected to draw 300,000 visitors.

As Canada's national representative, the Arctic Adaptations team takes over Canada's pavilion in Venice; the 1958 building, shaped like a nautilus shell, has defied many curators. In this odd venue, they must represent the country and try to give physical form to some complex ideas.

The exhibition design – led by Sheppard, White and their partner, Matthew Spremulli – shows some nimbleness: They're occupying the interior of the pavilion with a sinuous "ice floe," and lining it with three sets of physical artifacts.

The first represents the architectural past with soapstone carvings. Early this year, the Lateral team joined with the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association in Iqaluit, and the communities of Pangnirtung and Arviat, and asked local carvers to render 20th-century buildings. Jaco Ishulutaq of Pangnirtung carved a version of the Igloolik Research Centre – a 1975 structure (by Quebec architects Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc) that looks very much like a flying saucer. White is "a big fan" of that building, and he praises the wisdom of its circular, round-edged form, which resists snowdrifts and the force of high winds. Just like an igloo.

At the same time, the show includes scale models of towns and settlements made of computer-cut Corian. "These are Inuit communities, and we're doing the carving of those using modern machinery," White says, "and we've got modern architecture being [rendered] through traditional means." The show's mash-up of Inuit craftsmanship and modern architecture is strategic. "I think there's a lot that we can learn from them in terms of adaptation, inventiveness, amazing hybridization of technology and tradition."

That mixture, Lateral believes, will serve the territory well – and it plays out in the third stream of Arctic Adaptations: five models for imagined future buildings in Nunavut. These were designed by separate teams, each involving students, architecture firms and Nunavut-based groups. The proposals – including a university, a performing arts campus, and a health care centre – are resolutely contemporary in their building form, but each reflects Inuit tradition and culture.

Nunavut is poorly served by medical care. The Sangilirviuksaq Healing Network suggests both health centres and traditional healing centres – all designed for a continuum of collective and private space, indoor and outdoor experiences, and supplemented by a group of outposts that integrate traditional activities such as hunting and fishing with mental-health care. "Healing, for the Inuit, is on the land," Sheppard explains. "And learning happens on the land, often as a group."

A building is just one piece of any architectural design. This philosophy reflects Lateral Office's approach to its work, part of a broad movement in the profession toward what's called "social architecture." "It's about motivating a new approach to design," White says, "one that responds more directly to culture and environment."

Mason and Sheppard are both products of the academy: They met as students at Harvard's distinguished architecture school, and they now teach at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, respectively. Many architects see teaching as a counterpoint (and a support) to the work of making buildings. Lateral is an "experimental design practice," as the founders put it, committed to asking its own questions and redefining just what architecture and landscape actually mean. They have a steady interest in "the connection between architecture and geography," Sheppard says, and they're fascinated with the complex logistics of communication, shipping, and storage that allow urban life in the North to exist.

The show will tour Canada in 2015 and 2016, and White and Sheppard have also written a 400-page book that expands on its themes.

This year's Biennale is curated by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas of OMA – a legend in the field, and also a bit of a troublemaker. He's ensuring the exhibition is extraordinarily broad – its title is Fundamentals – and is asking the national pavilions "to show, each in their own way, the process of the erasure of national characteristics in architecture in favour of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language." In other words, each country is being asked to show how its own architectural identity is disappearing.

If all that sounds like a prank, it's not quite. The design of buildings, landscapes and infrastructure is transnational: The leaders in these fields work globally, which raises concerns both aesthetic and political. (Case in point: Koolhaas's own firm designed a bravura twisting office tower for China's state TV agency, CCTV, in Beijing – an icon for the state propaganda machine.) But digital culture has also turned architecture upside down, and design with social ambition doesn't always travel well.

Lateral Office's Venice exhibition is an exception. One offshoot of the Arctic Adaptations project, the Arctic Food Network – a plan for food-distribution channels that would harness local hunting and share resources across the region – won a prestigious Progressive Architecture Award last year.

The project's main ambition, White and Sheppard say, is to actually build the designs. But in the meantime, it will open up new senses of what architecture can do.

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