Feeling good on Common Ground: The Venice Biennale in Architecture

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The 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture recently opened its doors to the public, welcoming crowds to see what's new and hot in architecture.

The Biennale is a major international event, the equivalent of the Architecture Olympics, showing cutting edge work from all around the world. It reveals shifting aesthetics, changes in design, technology and building materials etc.

But I believe the single most important reason to take note of this year's Biennale is its theme, Common Ground. Director David Chipperfield says he chose the theme "to encourage my colleagues to react against the prevalent professional and cultural tendencies of our time that place such emphasis on individual and isolated actions. I encouraged them instead … to illustrate common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture."

Exhibitors have risen to the challenge, with projects that reveal how architects can help create a common ground today and in the future. 

At the American pavilion the curators have presented over 100 urban interventions, showing how small groups of citizens can work together to inexpensively solve common problems. For example, gallons of paint, a few lights, benches, some grass and flower seeds and a bit of community elbow grease can transform a dilapidated, crime-ridden park into a green space for citizens to enjoy. 

The German pavilion showcases the importance of large scale recycling and reusing. In one case, rather than tearing down old apartment blocks and building something new (something that isn’t feasible in the current economic climate), local architects redid the balconies. The effect was quite striking, transforming a vertical slum (not unlike Toronto's St. Jamestown) into something that looked like high end condos in a modernist magazine.

Japan's entry (which won the prestigious Golden Lion for best national participation) focused on designing homes for the area that was devastated by last year's tsunami. Star architect Toyo Ito, who curated the Japanese pavilion, states that now is the time to set professional egos aside and for architects to work with the people, creating temporary homes to house them during their country’s massive rebuild. He put his money where his mouth is, working with emerging architects and local community organizers to create dozens of small models for housing, all set against a photo backdrop of the site of the former city of Rikuzentakata, now completely flat and almost devoid of buildings or trees.

Canada's entry at the Venice Biennale is Migrating Landscapes, curated by Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic (of 5468796 Architecture) and Jae-Sung Chon, who collectively call themselves the Migrating Landscapes Organizer, or MLO for short. This Winnipeg-based trio chose the common demographic ground that is Canada -- the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural fabric of people who have come to define our nation.

MLO invited architects under the age of 45 to build a model of a dwelling and create a short personal video that speaks to their unique experiences of im/migration. Entries poured in from all over the country and regional competitions were held in Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax.

Eighteen winning entries were selected by a national jury and to present with MLO at the Canada Pavilion in Venice. I couldn't help but think what an incredible opportunity MLO afforded these young architects, the chance to share their spotlight and meet with other architects from all over the world.

MLO designed the framework for the Canadian installation -- an enormous modular wooden "landscape" that represents the social, cultural, demographic and psychological landscape of Canada. The models and videos are displayed within this wooden landscape, which each entrant gets to modify, reflecting the fact that in Canada, we aren't expected to assimilate but are encouraged to express our individual cultural heritages, while still holding something in common. 

Strolling through the installation, and pausing to watch the videos and listen to the individual stories of im/migration, I came to a new understanding about my country. An understanding I was intellectually aware of, but that I'd never quite felt at the gut level. En route to Venice through Germany and Italy, I had been struck by how people of colour and varying religious beliefs (clad in burkas and turbans, for example) stood out as different from the rest of the (white) population, outsiders who haven't yet been assimilated. Not so in Canada. In Canada, somehow we've found a way to blend and respect our cultural differences (albeit not always perfectly), creating a country that consists of people from hundreds or thousands of different cultures. 

Fifty years ago a trip through Toronto or Montreal would have felt like Munich or Milan. That is no longer the case. Today, Canada's cultural landscape looks much like MLO's architectural installation. Highly diverse pieces/people that somehow come together to create a national identity. We are indeed a country of im/migrants, a country globally acknowledged for our inclusivity of all. It's no small feat that we've managed this and it makes me very proud to be Canadian.

Another thing to celebrate with MLO's entry is the incredible support the project received from right across Canada, from individual donors and small firms to some of the biggest players in architecture, construction and development in the country. It appears that nearly everyone who heard about the project saw its merits and wanted to be on board.  

The camaraderie hit its apex at the Canada Party, a celebration with more than 300 Canadians and international guests in a medieval palazzo in Venice. Many architects, donors and sponsors, bureaucrats and worker bees, volunteers and friends, as well as the extended families of the young participants had flown over from Canada. Some had brought their moms and dads to take care of toddlers and babies. They couldn't bear to leave their children at home as they celebrated one of the biggest moments in their professional lives. No siree, Migrating Landscapes was a family affair, and nobody was left out. Everyone was thrilled to be along for the ride. When the lights came on at the end of the evening, nobody left, and the party continued!

The overall feeling of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale was one of hope and the importance of helping one another. Even though financially we're in a global mess and environmentally we’ve long since passed the tipping point, the Biennale's message was clear. We all share the common ground of planet earth, and if we come together there really are solutions.  

The Biennale runs until November 25. 

Cathi Bond is a writer/podcaster whose first novel, Night Town (a coming of age story about the mean streets of Toronto during the 1970s), will be published by Iguana Books in spring 2013.

Photos: Sascha Hastings

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