Canada ups its game at the Venice Biennale with a Special Mention winning exploration of the forms modern arctic architecture could take in the face of rapid development
Few milieus could be further removed from the cosmopolitan self-regard of a Biennale vernissage than Nunavut, Canada’s newest, largest and most northerly province. Meaning ‘Our Land’ in Inuit, Nunavut ceded from the Northwest Territories in 1999 and encompasses a vast, inhospitable terrain at the top of the world next to Greenland. A mere 33,000 souls are distributed across two million square miles making it one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet. The Inuit, who have inhabited this spectral, snowy wasteland for millennia, were semi-nomadic until the 1950s, when ‘civilising’ notions of permanent settlement were foisted on them in the name of Canadian sovereignty and the more streamlined management of aboriginal affairs.
In a bitter history, only now being officially acknowledged, Canada’s relations with the Inuit have been fraught with acts of neglect, resistance and negotiation, while Nunavut’s extreme climate and geography challenges the vision and viability of a universalising modernity.
These undercurrents were explored in the Canadian Pavilion’s ‘Arctic Adaptations’, curated by Lateral Office of Toronto, which reflected on the legacy of Modernism in the region, its present realities and future potential. The Inuit’s rapid and sometimes abrupt confrontation with the outside world has been described as ‘going from igloos to the internet in 40 years’, but it has also revealed a propensity for adaptation and resilience, qualities that modern architecture in this isolated part of the world often lacks.
Rarely seen as a tool of cultural empowerment, architecture in the Canadian Arctic is primarily driven by efficiency and expediency, illustrated by a survey of Nunavut building types, from blubber stations to airports, in the form of traditional soapstone models carved by Inuit artists. Urban settlements are equally functional, represented by drawings, images and bas-reliefs of Nunavut’s 25 permanent communities. All except one are coastal, accessible only during a limited shipping season or by air, as there is no road network. From this emerged a compelling self-portrait of a compact, remote urbanism, akin to planetary colonisation, presented in a lucid yet also highly poetic way, with survey data and models resembling abstract art.
Augmenting this documentation of current realities, five teams of students from Canadian schools of architecture were invited to produce speculative propositions that addressed the fundamentals of human habitation in the Arctic. Modernism is often resistant to the specifics of place, and this is especially apparent in its failure to take meaningful root in Nunavut’s hostile terra incognita. Yet as Inuit culture continues to evolve and synthesise traditional and contemporary influences, what could an authentically modern and adaptable Arctic architecture look like?
Usually regarded as dull but worthy, Canada upped its game for this Biennale, winning a special mention from the jury and giving its more high-profile neighbours something to chew on. Seal blubber, perhaps.
Curated by Lateral Office
Photographs by Andrea Avezzù