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What Canada's entry at the next Venice Biennale really means

Bringing an Indigenous voice to the world's premier forum for architecture, Unceded could be a bold step in reconciliation – and a revolution in how we build

A rendering of the Unceded exhibition, which will be on display at the Venice Biennale in 2018.

Architecture is the art that forms the deepest roots. You can't make a building, or a city, without choosing a place. Yet Canadian architecture has often excluded those who have the strongest connections here: People of Indigenous descent and their traditions have been pushed aside.

Next year, a group of Indigenous curators will change that. The exhibition Unceded will be Canada's entry at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. It will "bring the Indigenous voice in architecture," architect David Fortin says, into the global conversation.

Curated by the eminent architect Douglas Cardinal, arts curator Gerald McMaster and Fortin, it will bring together work by a range of architects from across North America. And just what does "the Indigenous voice" have to say? Unceded promises to answer that question, and perhaps change the way Canada builds in this period of truth and reconciliation – not just in Indigenous communities but everywhere.

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"There is a particular thinking that these architects are converging on," McMaster explains. "As with Indigenous art, it's a new medium, but there's a focus back on Indigenous principles and a discourse that's specific to them. That's what we're trying to articulate."

In conversations, the curators and some of their collaborators expressed a series of themes: valuing of local and traditional knowledge; deep consultation with the public who will live with a building; and a multigenerational perspective toward the Earth. It's not principally a question of a formal style or of particular building types, but of a world view.

"What is Indigenous architecture? There is no single definition," says Fortin, who is director of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University and associate director of the Maamwizing Indigenous Research Institute, the Sudbury university's centre for Indigenous research.

"At its most basic level, like with Indigenous art, there is a position that only design led by Indigenous architects can be considered as such," Fortin adds. But considered another way, it's "a region-specific design process that expresses the distinct cultures of the Indigenous peoples of that region," he explains, "including their specific social, ecological, visual, material and spiritual values."

The Venice event, which comes around every two years, is the world's premier forum for the discussion of architecture. The 2018 Biennale, curated by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, has the loose theme "Freespace;" the theme has to do with "a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda," they said in a statement.

On a thematic level, Unceded may prove a good fit. "The basis of the Anishinaabe culture is loving and caring, and treating people in a very loving way," Cardinal says. "What I want to do, as a presenter, is have people see that the work comes out of the Indigenous reality of respect and caring and love and honouring people, so that contribution can be shown."

How does that play out in the process of making a building or a place? Process matters. "The first question I normally ask is, 'Are there elders who can inform this process?'" Hamilton-based architect Eladia Smoke says, whose work will be featured in Unceded. "In many cases there are lots of questions that have already been answered through discussion – so we talk to the elders, find out what questions are still open and find a way to engage with the larger community."

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Patrick Stewart, a British Columbia architect who is collaborating on the exhibition, cites a similar note: "When people are connected, the building is taken care of, they're happy with it – that's what I want to achieve in my work," he says. "That sense of inclusion comes from the communality of our nations. Our land is held communally, traditionally, and everything we do is for and by the community."

The team agrees: There is no single visual language for Indigenous architecture. Smoke cites traditional building types that are still in use, such as the Anishinaabe roundhouse. Generally, however, these architects are exploring how to combine traditional symbolism and spatial ideas with modern techniques and spatial approaches.

Cardinal has been the most visible pathbreaker. From the 1960s onward, his work his combined an exploration of European modernism with expressions of Indigenous culture, culminating in the grand public commission of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) in Hull (now Gatineau).

The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

"It was meshing both world views," he says, "using the latest technology in building, but also informing it with ways to be in harmony with people and the land." This was no easy thing. Cardinal was among the first people in Canada to be registered as an architect without being forced to give up his Indian status and, in effect, renounce his identity.

Cardinal has become only more outspoken in his politics; he speaks now of "a racist and apartheid government that has practised the destruction of our Indigenous culture."

Some Indigenous architects see a need for their work to make explicit cultural references. "I am more overt in use of traditional forms and colours – in my last building, I had totem poles," Stewart says. "For me it's important to bring back what was violently removed. To me, having carved poles installed on my buildings is a way to push back: It's important that those symbols can exist, and for us to be proud of them."

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The biennale is shaped by a nationalist logic – about a dozen countries have permanent pavilions there. Unceded, which is principally funded by the Canada Council, rejects that logic; it's billed as representing Turtle Island, as many Indigenous activists call North America.

"In Canada and in the U.S., the histories are quite similar," McMaster argues. "The colonization of Indigenous America happened through a similar system of indoctrination. And calling this pavilion Turtle Island – not just Canada – allows us to bring American architects and Canadian architects, because we pretty much speak the same language across the border."

Fortin notes the small number of architects in Canada who identify as Indigenous: 17, within a profession of roughly 10,000. Given those facts, the presence of Unceded in Venice is, itself, an important statement. "Despite the immense challenges faced by our ancestors and that our communities still face today," Fortin says, "we are here."


Unceded will be on view at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, from May 26 to Nov. 25, 2018 (labiennale.org).

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