Migrating Landscapes exhibit opens in Toronto's Brookfield Place

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Migrating Landscapes, the Canadian Entry to the 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture, has arrived in Toronto's Brookfield Place
Chess set of Toronto by Amber Baechler and Mark Baechler. Photo: Theo Skudra/Tom Glass Pictures

Migrating Landscapes was inspired by the individual experiences of architects Johanna Hurme (born in Finland), her business partner Sasa Radulovic (born in the former Yugoslavia) and colleague Jae-Sung Chon (born in South Korea), collectively known as the Migrating Landscapes Organizer or MLO. All three are first-generation immigrants, who, like most new Canadians, had unsettling encounters with the very different Canadian landscape and building forms as they settled into their new country.

Believing that this experience of migration is quintessentially Canadian and not just limited to immigrants, MLO put out a call to young Canadian architects ages 45 and under to create videos and build models of dwellings that address their own unique experiences of migration. Wanting this to be a truly national project, both in its scope and its presentation, MLO is in the process of hosting seven regional exhibitions across the country. Overall winners will travel to Venice with MLO to be shown as Canada's official entry at the Biennale next fall. The MLO traveling show has currently landed in Toronto's Brookfield Place complex.

Brookfield's gorgeous airy galleria, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is the perfect place to see this whimsical exhibition. When arriving from the Yonge Street entrance, one is greeted with what appears to be stacks of untreated wood of varying shapes and sizes standing on end. The configuration of wood is simultaneously reminiscent of an urban skyline, a mountain range or a vast forest. One catches the occasional pleasant whiff of pine or fir. There is something about Migrating Landscapes that is explicitly Canadian on a very sensual level. This strange landscape of wood summons up the very essence of our home.

Within these stacks of wood, this metaphorical landscape, are strategically placed models constructed by the Migrating Landscapes entrants from Ontario. For example, an intriguing series of small dark wooden boxes, suspended by cables, suggest the possibility of life high in the trees or mountains. A chess set of the city of Toronto, complete with painstakingly crafted sculptures of the CN Tower and the Sky Dome, rests on top of another wooden plinth or plot of land, reminding one that life in Toronto can be a high stakes game.

 Theo Skudra/Tom Glass Pictures

MLO's exhibit couldn't have found a more perfect time or place for this show than 21st century Toronto. When walking up Yonge into Brookfield, one can see the unimaginable changes that have transpired in the city over the past decade or so. Old brick edifices are disappearing, either absorbed into the facades of new glass skyscrapers, or demolished by indiscriminate wrecking balls. A distinctly pan-Asian aesthetic has swept across the city's skyline, as unique and unsettling for many as the migration experiences one can see represented in the models of the Migrating Landscapes show.

One must applaud Brookfield Place for opening its doors to these young architects and allowing them the opportunity to share their experiences, hopes and dreams for the future of Canadian architecture with the many passersby. People of all ages stopped, obviously fascinated by the material, engaged with the models, trying to figure out what stories of migration they tell.

This is where the Migrating Landscapes exhibition is at its most successful. Its wild wooden landscape and unusual little models speak to the migration experience that is part of the fabric of our Canadian identity. Where it flounders a bit is in the dense, descriptive passages that accompany the models. They consist of highly conceptual "architect speak" which is alienating at worst and will mean nothing to the average citizen at best. This kind of language may be more suitable in a gallery or museum context than in an open public venue like Brookfield Place.

The winners of this Ontario Regional Exhibition of Migrating Landscapes will be travelling to Winnipeg in March for the National Exhibition, where they'll be joined by other regional winners from across Canada. I wholeheartedly look forward to seeing which singular models will make the trip to Venice along with the rest of the MLO team.

Cathi Bond is an author and national broadcaster, currently working on Night Town, a novel and screenplay that takes place on the very different streets of downtown Toronto during the 1970s.

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