Land back!: When radical architects took over the Canada Pavilion

The Architects Against Housing Alienation want their presence at the Venice Biennale to revolutionize Canadian architecture. The exhibition runs to November 26th.

Architects Against Housing Alienation want their Venice Biennale show to revolutionize Canadian architecture

A steel and glass modernist building in Italy covered by images of Canadian tent cities. Inside on the second floor, four people are talking.
The Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale's 18th International Architecture Exhibition is occupied by the Architects Against Housing Alienation until November 2023. (Maris Mezulis)

In May, six organizing members of the group Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) held a rally in front of the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. "What do we demand?" they yelled toward a group of around 100 people. "LAND BACK!" they responded.

Then came nine more demands, shouted clearly across the Biennale's iconic Giardini: "On-the-land housing! First Nations Home Building [Design] Lodges! Reparative architecture! A gentrification tax! Surplus properties for housing! Intentional communities for unhoused people! Collective ownership! Mutual-aid housing! Ambient ecosystems commons!"

The opening of this year's Canadian contribution to the Venice Biennale's 18th International Architecture Exhibition felt more like a protest than an exclusive vernissage. While some of the regular art-world pageantry remained — wine, canapés, dignitaries and the press — the opening event was a lot more urgent, raw and chaotic than usual. That was by design. Central to the launch was a question AAHA wanted us to grapple with: Why can't architecture be a form of activism, or at least a tool to help initiate change?

A speaker in front of the Canada Pavilion addresses the crowd during the opening of Not For Sale! at the Venice Biennale.
The exhibition presents 10 demands which it says we must meet in order to tackle housing alienation in Canada. (Architects Against Housing Alienation)

Just a few minutes before the call-and-response, Alex Wilson — a researcher from Opaskwayak Cree Nation who collaborated on the project — spoke to the crowd about acknowledging our everyday relationship to the earth. 

"Today, I want to ask all of us to acknowledge the lands that we're all from and make a commitment to honouring that relationship," Wilson said. "I want us to take some time to acknowledge the land here [in Venice] in some loving way. This could mean listening to the sounds, tasting the air or making an offering. It doesn't have to be material."

Both the materiality and the immateriality of housing alienation in Canada were on display in the many speeches that introduced Not for Sale!, AAHA's contribution to the architecture exhibition. But what resonated above all was a desire for placemaking through safer, healthier and more equitable housing. To end housing alienation in Canada, AAHA and its collaborators demand much more, not just from architects, but from everyone.

Bringing AAHA to the international stage

A person sits at a table inside a pavilion surrounded by posters. A sign that reads 'Land Back' hangs from a wooden beam.
A view inside the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The event runs from May 20 to Nov. 26, 2023. (Maris Mezulis)

The Venice Architecture Biennale is one of the world's most prestigious architecture events. This year's edition is titled The Laboratory of the Future. Curated by the Ghanaian Scottish architect Lesley Lokko, it is the first to spotlight Africa and the African diaspora since the Architecture Biennale was established in 1980. Lokko's curatorial vision asked each pavilion to rethink the dominant narratives in architecture that have historically ignored large swaths of humanity, be it in Africa or elsewhere.

Much of the focus has been on the overall successes of the event's commitment to decolonization and decarbonation — two vast yet interlinked themes that seem to sum up the present-day state of the world.

Some pavilions are more successful in this pursuit (see, for example, the Nordic Countries Pavilion by Joar Nango, which features the newest iteration of his Girjegumpi, an itinerant Indigenous Sámi collective library). Others are bogged down in the esthetics, adopting relatively apolitical stances for such a critical moment (see the Swiss Pavilion's Neighbours, which contents itself with removing walls and gates to "dissolve borders").

Tucked between the German and British pavilions, Not for Sale! stands out for its brutal honesty and transparency. Since 1958, when the Italian architects BBPR designed the modernist-looking Canada Pavilion, the space and its particularities have become synonymous with Canada's participation in the event. This year, a metal fence covered in life-size images of a tent city was erected around the building, hiding the iconic design.

Two people sit at a table inside a pavilion covered in posters.
Inside Canada's pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2023. The six-month-long event runs from May 20 to Nov. 26, 2023. (Maris Mezulis)

When international audiences visit the pavilion this year, the first thing they'll see is a spray-painted "No Surrender" sign on one of the photographed tents from a Vancouver settlement. There's no hiding the ugly truth here. Unlike many of the other pavilions, which feature conventional exhibitions with the insular jargon of architecture drawings, maquettes and diagrams, Not for Sale! plunges its audience into the heart of the action.

"We came together thinking that the Biennale shouldn't just be a fancy exhibit of static work," architectural and urban historian Sara Stevens told CBC Arts. For this Vancouver-based organizing member of AAHA, the opportunity to represent Canada at this year's exhibition was a chance to show the real potential of architecture to build community and create radical change.

"We wanted to leverage this opportunity and do something more to work with people across Canada," she said. "Architects don't always understand the potential they have in doing more activist-charged work. We thought we could convince architects that they can't go at it alone — that they need other people to work with."

To achieve this goal, AAHA created 10 working groups across the country, each embedded within specific communities with the aims of solving targeted local problems related to housing precarity and alienation. Consisting of architects, advocates and activists, these teams and their output populate the Canada Pavilion, which resembles the headquarters of an active NGO with flyers, pins, plans, videos, manifestos and other campaign paraphernalia.

"We've found that the architects can diagram things in a way that is really clear to a wider audience," said Stevens. "While the advocates and activists know the issues, the architects can translate them into diagrams." Thus is born a kind of synergy. With dozens of organizations involved, Not for Sale! is as ambitious as it is wide-ranging.

The granular approach

Signs with popular slogans from Canadian protest movements like Idle No More lean on images of a Canadian tent city outside a modernist building.
Protest signs from Canadian social movements outside the redesigned Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (Artists Against Housing Alienation)

Inside Not for Sale!, a bare-bones wooden structure divides the space into a first and second floor. The upstairs gallery provides a platform for student interns and other collaborators to work, meet and produce content. Below, the ongoing fruits of their labour are presented for audiences to peruse.

Interactive and evolving, the installation references many individual causes, yet the overall message is one of unity and conviction. There is no hierarchy to the 10 demands established by AAHA and its collaborators, only a cooperative spirit and willingness to offer resources for everyone to accomplish these goals.

"No one's demand is positioned higher. We are creating space where everyone can say what they need to say," said AAHA member David Fortin, an architect and citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. "We try to create a sense of equity."

This intersectional approach asks architects, and society more broadly, to see issues like colonialism, racism, LGBTQ rights, capitalism and environmental degradation as linked to one another. Housing alienation impacts everyone, and even the granular details of one smaller part of the project — like the reparative architecture demanded by SOCA architecture studio in collaboration with Keele Eglinton residents and CP Planning in Toronto's Little Jamaica neighbourhood — are connected to the larger AAHA intention of making the field of architecture more socially conscious.

"One of the values of architects to our society is that most architects are socially conscious," Fortin said. "What we are doing is beyond the technicalities of building a thing. Architects are a bit like science fiction writers, creating a broader fiction. Our process was consistent with that, with the deliberate goal to provide a bridge between housing and activism. As architects, we can be part of this long-term vision."

A teaching moment

A collage of renderings, bright colours and photos of people showing a solution to homelessness in Canada with a garden and tiny houses.
An image meant to illustrate a banner with one of AAHA's ten demands: "Intentional communities for unhoused people!" (Architects Against Housing Alienation)

Clearly intended as a campaign with a life beyond the six-month exhibition in Venice, AAHA's installation also functions as a pedagogical tool for its audience and participants. Over the course of Not for Sale!, 15 interns from different Canadian universities will be on-site to run the space. These young architecture mentees are the future of the discipline, and their presence and involvement distinguish the Canadian Pavilion by placing an emphasis on the next generation of architects.

Fortin, who also teaches at the University of Waterloo, sees a shift in the field. "For a long time, in architecture school, the emphasis was on design and the object, whereas today it's on how you produce things and how you can enrich people's lives through architecture. Buildings come out of long-term relationships with clients. Our student body feel like they want to do something meaningful. They're super well informed, and they're not going to allow the intellectual conception of architecture to usurp their agency."

If all goes as planned, AAHA's vision for a collectively imagined architecture rooted in local issues will continue to grow. As the Biennale unfolds, teams back home in Canada are putting its initiatives into action through protests and projects and reporting back to the Venice hub. The idea is for Not for Sale! to resist becoming fixed, cornered or easily ignored.

Despite the New York Times describing the installation as "overstuffed" — a remark AAHA playfully parodied on its Instagram account — the collective embraces, and doesn't hide from, the inherent messiness and complexity of creating these important coalitions against housing alienation.

What do we demand?

One of the themes at the foundation of Not for Sale! is that all land in Canada is Indigenous land.

Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief from the Squamish Nation in B.C. and the activist for the Land Back portion of the project, touched on this in a conversation following his speech to the crowd. Working with Patrick R. Stewart Architects, a firm based in Chilliwack, B.C., Campbell and his team are proposing housing typologies that meet the intergenerational needs of Indigenous individuals, couples and families from Nations resettling their returned lands.

"Through this project, we want to make sure we have a visible presence, because our erasure is real," said Campbell. "We are invisible in our own land. The development of our lands needs to have the presence of our hands, to celebrate our mythology, and all that should be a part of celebrating our culture. We want Vancouver to become a tangible example of how to integrate Indigenous epistemologies with Western tools. We're not in a museum behind glass. It's a continuity of tradition."

In Venice with his family — including his wife, Mandy, and their toddler, Wakaystn — Chief Campbell speaks with persuasion, openness and hope. Among the crowd of mostly white, middle-aged people at the Giardini, little Wakaystn's radiance stands out. It is his future that these architects, advocates and activists are working for. 

This intergenerational call-to-arms against housing alienation, and the vast network of resources and finances deployed by hundreds of organizations and individuals, is what resonates in Not for Sale! It is not just the architectural environments it proposes, but the relationships it promises and seeks to nourish and maintain.


Didier Morelli is a Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQSC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois). Associate editor at Espace art actuel, his work has also been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse Arts + Opinions, Frieze, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review.

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