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When you arrive at the Canada Pavilion on the grounds of the Venice Biennale, the first thing you will notice is that the pavilion itself has been transformed. While all of the other national architectural emblems arranged throughout the Giardini retain their exterior character, delivering their surprises inside, the Canadian Pavilion is wrapped in a tent-like structure that obscures its name. Screen-printed on it are images of actual tents, taken from encampments of unhoused people that have sprung up in many urban centres around the country, one of them spray-painted with the declaration “No Surrender.”  

It is a provocation. Not For Sale!, curated by Architects Against Housing Alienation, sends a powerful message to Venice and the international community that gathers here: Canada, such a friendly country, is not exactly what you might imagine it to be.

The Land Back garden.

Yet, unlike Canada’s contribution to the 2016 biennale, which blockaded the pavilion with a wall of gold ore–filled sandbags and instead directed visitors’ attention to keyholes embedded in the surrounding grounds through which they could watch films about the nation’s history of resource depletion, this year’s exhibition is also an invitation to come inside.  

Step through, and you encounter the reimagined central courtyard – renamed the Land Back garden. Its new moniker echoes one of the 10 demands that the Canada Pavilion is making: Instead of a single manifesto, it is presenting multiple calls to action from various teams in which architects have collaborated with activists, researchers and community organizations.

Architect Patrick Stewart. Photo by Elizabeth Pagliacolo

Land Back has been curated by a team including the firm of Indigenous architect Patrick Stewart; Sarah Silva of Hiyam Housing, Squamish Nation; and Xalek/Sekyu Siyam Chief Ian Campbell. “All Crown land is Indigenous land,” Stewart explains. “What Indigenous Peoples want is co-ownership of the land, not co-management. Co-management models exist and they don’t work: We get all the responsibility but no authority and the government still maintains ownership. The status quo is not good enough anymore. We’re taking that tack with all our different teams.” Part of Land Back’s proposal is the adoption of “housing typologies that meet the intergenerational needs of Indigenous individuals, couples and families as Nations re-settle their returned lands.” 

Another Indigenous-focused demand is First Nations Home Building Lodges. Conceived for Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba by a team including architect David Fortin and Idle No More’s Silvia McAdam and Alex Wilson – whose One House Many Nations organization provides the core inspiration – this pilot project would be a game-changer for all Indigenous communities: It enables them to build their own robust housing rather than relying on outside entities peddling cheap construction, thereby keeping economic resources and job opportunities in the community.

“Housing as Cosmology,” a panel in the nook dedicated to First Nations Home Building Lodges.

“Our focus is on how the Indian Act has propagated the manufacturing of houses that commercializes it as product,” Fortin explains. “Reserves are forced to buy from outside sources because they’re underfunded and they have huge shortages – and the only way to get out of that is to buy cheap housing from whoever you can get it. That usually means off-reserve housing manufacturers; and so, the money that comes to the reserve for housing leaves the reserve to go to others.”

The solution: A design/build lodge with a manufacturing facility that would eventually go beyond simply constructing buildings to become a driver of community pride and cohesion. “The vision is that 20 years from now your manufacturing documents will be in Cree and English,” Fortin says. “Why not aspire to that?” The idea was influenced by the teachings of Alex Wilson, whose Opaskwayak Ininewuk community in Manitoba understands home and house as part of our ecology – its meaning is interrelated with those of the stars.

“If instead of commodity you think of housing as cosmology, the importance of housing as a process of enabling and empowering people reframes the conversation,” Fortin says.

A view from the entrance of the Canada Pavilion.

In these distinct ways, the exhibition methodically brings into view communities across Canada and how they are dealing with their own particular problems. The pavilion’s interior architecture helps frame these hopeful interventions both individually and as part of a holistic approach to rethinking housing from a commodity into a human right. Within the pavilion, the team has inserted a mezzanine structure, made of Austrian pine, whose underside creates nooks for each demand to have its own space, and whose elevated platform provides a view out to the Land Back garden and beyond. For once, it seems, the pavilion’s awkward geometry, a cause for constant consternation among curators, has been embraced and even exalted.

As you make your way through, the case studies unfold in a manner that makes each feel intensely specific and also like a piece of a puzzle too complex to fully comprehend. These are a select few glimpses into the countless crises playing out across communities throughout the country. But if the scope the pavilion suggests may seem insurmountable, the possibilities it presents – opportunities that come into focus when activists, community organizations and architects come together – show that there is no deficit of ingenuity and will to solve them.

Collective Ownership – and zoning allowances to accommodate new models – is another of the 10 demands set out by AAHA. Photo by Elizabeth Pagliacolo

This is where hope resides. Even with its politically charged exterior, which might initially come across as confrontational (and for the better), the Canadian Pavilion in Venice is a place of joy. On several occasions during the opening days of the Biennale, members of Indigenous nations danced in a traditional ceremony outside the pavilion. The exhibition design itself, conjured in friendly hues and a variety of textures, features works of true beauty in the form of “Banners for Fugitives,” a series of suspended blankets made by artist Grey Piitaapan Muldoon with fabric offcuts that restate the 10 demands.

Another of these calls to action is Reparative Architecture. A team including SOCA, Keele Eglinton Residents and CP Planning, examines how seemingly progressive infrastructure projects have harmed Toronto’s Little Jamaica, where the construction of an LRT system has dragged on for years, and led to the “displacement of Black lives and destruction of paths for Black communities to improve our housing security.” Alongside demanding changes to zoning that would incentivize densification that preserves existing retail and provides affordable housing, they advocate for Black-led community land trusts that “will not only provide stable, affordable tenure for residents and small businesses, but will carry forward the rich legacy of Little Jamaica’s unique cultural character.”

The mezzanine was designed in Canada and CNC-fabricated in Europe. It makes more of the pavilion accessible and celebrates its awkward geometries.

A further economic and policy innovation for Toronto is proposed by a group formed by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT), Gentrification Tax Action, LGA Architectural Partners, Tuf Lab, Blackwell Engineers and others, focused on the neighbourhood of Parkdale. It calls for the City to create a “hypothecated tax dedicated to producing a reliable and dedicated revenue stream to build, renovate, and maintain a growing stock of affordable housing held in community land trusts.” One of the initiatives the team highlights is the PNLT’s purchase of rooming houses and low-rise apartment buildings in the area in order to remove them from the competitive housing market. If implemented, the gentrification tax would allow for architectural improvements to these properties to ensure they remain “long-term housing that is sustainable, accessible, generous and collective.”

Students of the University of British Columbia are in Venice to push the demands forward across multiple media channels.

Other ingenious proposals include a Halifax case study by the architectural firm FBM and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia for redesigning neighbourhoods around new amenity spaces derived from the reuse of neglected and vacant public buildings; and a plan to create a prototypical cluster in Kitchener of 25 cabins (plus community facilities) across parking lots on lands “already purchased by the City for the purposes of eventually constructing affordable housing” by a team that includes SvN, A Better Tent City and carpenter Khaleel Sievwright’s Toronto Tiny Shelters.

If Not For Sale! sets out how warped our housing market has become – the result of it being predicated on the financialization of an essential human need – it also demonstrates how collective action breeds real change. These solutions, many of them in the works, are necessarily site-specific – they have to be if they are going to be viable – and yet provide learnings for other places around the country, even the world, that want to change not only how housing is designed but also the policies and processes under which it is created.

At the Venice Biennale, Radical Solutions for Canada’s Housing Crises

The Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale presents one of the most progressive visions for housing reform we’ve ever seen.

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