Canada offers up thorny, provocative works at increasingly political Architecture Biennale in Venice

In recent years, the Venice Architecture Biennale has become less about dazzling design and more about the urgent political, planning and housing issues facing our rapidly urbanizing and increasingly mobile world. Canada's official entry this year reflects that shift by focusing on the impact of resource extraction on our environment and national identity.

Extraction and The Evidence Room tackle difficult societal issues from past and present

Landscape architect Pierre Bélanger looks at several sacks of gold ore that make up his exhibit, Extraction, Canada's official entry in this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. (Megan Williams/CBC)

For years, the Venice Architecture Biennale, the most prestigious architectural exhibition in the world, was predominantly a platform for towering egos to showcase their latest trophy buildings.

While the egos still loom large in Venice's shady Giardini exhibition area, the themes of recent biennales, including this year's "From the Front Line," have become less about dazzling design and more about the urgent political, planning and housing issues facing our rapidly urbanizing and increasingly mobile world.

Well-known Canadian architect and philanthropist Phyllis Lambert looks through a peephole at a series of images documenting Canada's history of nation-building through resource extraction. The peephole is in the centre of a map of the world that is part of the Extraction installation. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The show features dozens of national exhibits from mainly developed nations, along with a curated section, headed this year by Chilean superstar architect Alejandro Aravena

Canada's official entry, Extraction, is an exploration of the dark and often obscured role that the mining and extraction industries have played in shaping Canada's economy, cities and identity and in the exploitation of indigenous lands. The work is the creation of a team of landscape architects led by the forthright Pierre ​Bélanger, who teaches at Harvard University, with Catherine Crowston of the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton acting as the commissioner overseeing the installation.

Bélanger speaks at the opening of Extraction, which was supposed to be installed inside Canada's pavillion but was forced by delays to be mounted outside. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The show itself is minimalist and partially underground. Due in part to stalled renovations, Canada's low, angular pavilion wasn't ready in time to house the project, which originally was to have involved filling the space with gold ore from a botched Canadian mining project on the Italian island of Sardinia that in 2009 left a poisonous spill behind.

Consequently, Bélanger and his team decided to mount the exhibit outside, in front of the pavilion. It consists of a barricade-like row of huge sacks of gold ore (from Sardinia) and a flat round map of the world on the ground with a peephole in the middle — which before the opening was covered by a round beaver pelt rug, a nod to another exploited Canadian resource.

Only by getting on your hands and knees can you peer through the hole. When you do, you see a short, silent film about Canada's history of nation-building through resource extraction — told in 800 flickering images.

Reporter Megan Williams prepares to peep into the hole that makes up part of Extraction. (M. Vallecchi)

Symbolism of buried truths and histories abounds throughout the exhibit. The symbolism turned particularly heavy-handed when, during the opening ceremony, Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca-Chipewyan Nation read a poem denouncing Canada's Indian Act as Bélanger ushered Canada's ambassador to Italy down to the ground to view the film on his hands and knees.

Canada at the Venice Architecture Biennale

6 years ago
Duration 1:03
Canada's ambassador to Italy, Peter McGovern, takes a peek inside Extraction, Canada's official entry in this year's Architecture Biennale in Venice, which explores the role resource industries have played in shaping the country's identity.

"I'm even more proud to be Canadian than ever," said Toronto curator Natalie Kovacs, who came to see the piece. "It's dealing with geopolitics, where we are, consumerism, consumption, the planet, ecology, the future, what's right and wrong. It's freaking incredible."

Cities are built with asphalt, concrete and steel. All those elements come from territories of extraction, and we need to understand what the origins and sources of those material are.- Pierre ​Bélanger, landscape architect, creator of Extraction

While some might see the work as thin on content, Extraction is boldly political, denouncing the tendency of empires to exploit or ignore rural and natural environments for the profit of those who inhabit urban landscapes.

"Cities are built with asphalt, concrete and steel. All those elements come from territories of extraction, and we need to understand what the origins and sources of those material are," Bélanger  said. "We also need to understand that those territories don't belong to us."

Two commissioners pulled out of the project before the Art Gallery of Alberta stepped in, and Bélanger says he suspects the various delays in mounting the exhibit were the result of stonewalling by Canadian bureaucrats who saw the project as too critical.

Some of the structures that make up The Evidence Room, which replicates elements of the Auschwitz concentration camp based on blueprints and photos. The work was created by professors and students from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and independent curator Sascha Hastings. (Siobhan Allman)

Perhaps. Yet, other, more nuanced but just as critical installations, such as Rebecca Belmore's powerful 2005 Venice show Fountain, have been shown in Venice without interference.

A forensic examination of Auschwitz architecture

In the same Giardini area on the Venice lagoon in the main building is another Canadian exhibit that explores radically different architectural and political concerns.

The Evidence Room is a display of key architectural blueprints and elements of the Auschwitz concentration camp put together by Robert Jan van Pelt, Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, independent curator Sascha Hastings and several students.

An archival image showing a peephole on the door of a gas chamber at Auschwitz. (Unknown Russian photographer)

The display is based on the 2000 libel trial in London involving Holocaust denier David Irving and American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. Irving sued Lipstadt and her publishers for labelling him a Holocaust denier in Lipstadt's book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Van Pelt was an expert witness at the trial, providing key architectural evidence of the camp's murderous purpose through a series of drawings, blueprints and photographs. His testimony not only helped defeat Irving's lawsuit but gave birth to the new discipline of architectural forensics.

A replica of the door with the peephole that is part of The Evidence Room installation. (Siobhan Allman)

Recreating elements of an Auschwitz gas chamber for an exhibit, however, is a delicate venture. On the one hand, there's the danger of turning it into a theme-park experience; on the other, if the approach is too scientific, it risks perpetuating the same emotional disconnect as its original designers.

Through a series of all-white, painstakingly crafted 3-D plaster structures based on blueprints and photos, The Evidence Room strikes a deeply sensitive tone.

In a series of drawings, you see how the plans for one Auschwitz room progressed from depicting a space to be used as a morgue to one intended to serve as a mass killing chamber.

University of Waterloo architecture students Alexandru Vilcu, Siobhan Allman, Anna Longrigg and Piper Bernbaum review the Auschwitz crematorium evidence plans with Waterloo architecture professor and The Evidence Room co-creator Robert Jan van Pelt. (Fred Hunsberger)

Initially, drawings depict a chute leading into the morgue, indicating dead bodies were slid down into the room before being transferred to a crematorium. In later drawings, the chute is replaced with stairs, indicating that people had to be alive when they entered the room. The column to lower Zyklon-B poisonous gas was also added.

In another drawing, a door opens inward, then in a later one, outward — a sign that dead bodies piling up against the door after people were gassed made it impossible for door to swing open.

It's not so much that these architects were monsters. They were just people that didn't fight the system.- Anne Bordeleau, director, University of Waterloo School of Architecture

"In some ways, this is very mundane. Does the door open in our out? You could nearly not notice it," said Bordeleau. "But then you begin to track the meaningful transformations and see they indicate a will [to mass murder]."

A life-size replica of the steel cage that held the column through which Zyklon-B poisonous gas was funneled to the gas chamber and the three-layer wooden door that led to the chamber itself lend physicality to an exhibit that could otherwise be too abstract.

The column and ladder and hatch show the evolution of how Zyklon-B gas was passed into the chamber. Initially, the gas was put into the chamber through the hatch, but later, the Nazis developed the gas column, which enabled them to speed up the extermination process. (Fred Hunsberger.)

Bordeleau says the tension of trying to make a beautiful exhibit out of material so steeped in horror was the most important part of the experience for her and her students.

"It's not so much that these architects were monsters," she said. "They were just people that didn't fight the system. And this is something we all have within ourselves. The reason why we show this to our students is to say, 'You can do great things, you can do horrific things, and you have to position yourself, always.'"

The Evidence Room installation showing replicas of a gas chamber door, a column through which the lethal gas Zyklon-B was passed and a ladder and gas-tight hatch. (Fred Hunsberger)


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.