Nunavut in Venice

Fifteen years ago now, the territory of Nunavut was formed, the result of an arduous land claims negotiation that stands as a laudable attempt to reckon the practice of settler colonialism with the reality of Aboriginal title. The expanse of Nunavut—nearly two million square kilometres—is now under Indigenous rule while maintaining federation with the Canadian state, reflecting the fact that the majority of its residents are Inuit, the first peoples of this vast expanse of land who have made their lives there since long before contact with Europeans. At 2014’s International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, the Canadian pavilion, curated by the Toronto-based studio Lateral Office, celebrates the territory through Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, a project that “surveys a recent architectural past, a current urbanizing present, and a projective near future of adaptive architecture in Nunavut.”[1] Within the Biennale’s larger frame, which has been set by curator Rem Koolhaas as Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014, the Canadian pavilion positions Nunavut as a case study on the periphery, a place affected by modernity but in very particular ways due to the unique culture, climate, and (lack of) available resources in the territory.

Visiting the Biennale during its opening earlier this summer, I understood that this representation of Nunavut and its Inuit culture was a significant event. The Venice Biennale of Architecture is “the single most prestigious international exhibition in the discipline,” and thus provides an unparalleled platform for consideration of the thematics of the national pavilions.[2] While previous Canadian projects in Venice had incorporated Indigenous elements (such as 2004’s METAMORPH), Arctic Adaptations is the first pavilion focused on Indigenous realties and I was elated to be greeted by project team members from Nunavut when visiting the pavilion, signalling a collaborative engagement of Nunavut residents in the project.

Photo credit: A series of 12 soapstone carvings by Inuit artists document key Nunavut buildings and typologies from the 20th century; courtesy Lateral Office.
Photo credit: A series of 12 soapstone carvings by Inuit artists document key Nunavut buildings and typologies from the 20th century; courtesy Lateral Office.

Arctic Adaptations unfolds in three parts. The first is a series of soapstone carvings of non-traditional architecture in the territory as fashioned by Inuit artists, which included the Old Blubber Station in Pangnirtung (designed by the Hudson’s Bay Company), the FOX-Main DEW Line Station in Hall Beach (designed by the US Army Corps), and St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit (designed by Ron Thom), among others. Meant to convey the architectural history of the place, this version of Nunavut’s past is one written mostly by architects from elsewhere, effectively neglecting Inuit architecture prior to contact. In an interview with ArchDaily, Lateral Office partner Mason White notes that “the presence and role [that] military or missionary or trade has played in the north as an architecturalizing force has been strong,” so that many of the built forms that make up Nunavut’s communities can be understood as the result of settlement practices that serve the needs of governments, religious institutions, or corporations from elsewhere.[3] Focusing on these types of built forms resists a caricatured narrative of life in the north recognizable in the cliché that all Canadians currently live in igloos. However, the related effect is to inscribe a narrative informed by southern practices as dominant, eliding a history of architecture in the region better described by nomadic habits, wind, snow, and ice than permanent settlements constructed from wood, cement, and plastic.

The carvings, though, are exquisite, doing things with stone that seem somewhat impossible, describing the angles of built forms that are totally different from the bodily shapes soapstone carvings usually imitate. While Nunavut has a significant history of producing traditionally informed art and craft for a southern audience—notably the Cape Dorset printmaking boom instigated by James A. Houston in the 1950s—this access to markets usually involves a cultural revisioning, so that “historically…Inuit arts and culture were either banished or exploited to reflect the tastes of a Southern economy.”[4] It is hard for me not to read these carvings as another example of Inuit forms adapted to southern tastes, and according to ArchDaily, the carvings were actually based on scale drawings provided by Lateral Office.[5] However, this may also be understood as an example of cultural hybridization, rendering mutually intelligible the practices of one place in the forms or language of another. This is similar to the way that printmaking utilized the tools of settlers to translate Inuit imagery typically expressed through carvings into prints that then traveled the world. The value to Inuit people of such practices can be argued, but the globalized art marketplace continues to see the price of these prints increase.

Photo credit: Arctic Bay, Nunavut; photograph by Bobby Kilabuk, 2014.
Photo credit: Arctic Bay, Nunavut; photograph by Bobby Kilabuk, 2014.

The second part of the project is an array of images describing the 25 communities that house the territory’s 33 000 inhabitants. Assembled as self-portraits (meaning that most communities have been documented by a resident), the photographs and attendant bas-relief models (depicting landforms, proximity to water, and every single built form in each of the communities) give a sense of scale, of the negotiation between human and nature that deeply informs northern life. Lateral Office describe this specific reality as compact remote urbanism, a term that begins to capture the shifts in thinking required to understand life in the north from a southern or more typically urban perspective: the communities are small, but only in relative judgment (it’s compact); there are no connecting highways (it’s remote). And yet, this is what the spectre of urbanization manifests above the tree line.

Photo credit: Arctic Adaptations, installation view, 2014; courtesy Lateral Office.
Photo credit: Arctic Adaptations, installation view, 2014; courtesy Lateral Office.

The final aspect of Arctic Adaptations is a series of proposals imagining possible futures for the territory. Collaboratively developed by design teams composed of “a Canadian school of architecture, a Canadian architecture office with extensive northern experience, and a Nunavut-based organization,” the vignettes take the recognizable form of architectural models (to scale, tangible) and expand upon them with animated projections of how the spaces could be used.[6] Focusing on five areas of life—the arts, education, healthcare provision, housing, and recreation—the designs are always multifunctional. The performing arts venue is also a breakwater structure, accounting for the fact that all but one of Nunavut’s permanent communities are coastal. The university campus is decentralized so as to allow students to remain in their communities as builders. Healthcare centres feature open interior spaces suitable for collective use, recognizing the value of community in traditional healing practices. Live/work spaces are arranged in blocks that maximize the collective perimetre and thereby create a wind-breaking face for shared outdoor spaces. A network of shelters make recreational use of the land safer, both by offering respite from the outdoors and as navigational markers. The five projects—though they demonstrate concern for the specificity of climate and society in the North, and diagnose many of the particular challenges of the region—are hypothetical, considered but somewhat speculative.[7] Granted, these are the limitations of any architectural project as it begins to take shape, but profound questions haunt these specific propositions. Who would fund these projects? How would materials be transported to Nunavut? How would the difficult practicalities of construction, such as the needed manpower or even the short seasons suitable to building, be addressed? In line with much of the work that Lateral Office does, these proposals are conceptual models rather than build plans. Their realization would require the dedication of an enormous amount of resources: time and energy and money. Not that these projects, born of a wild imagination of what the territory could become, should be constricted by all the dictates of practicality, but perhaps the “projective near future” articulated by the Arctic Adaptations is not so near as the project positions it to be.

Over the hundred years that bracket Koolhaas’s calendar of modernity, southern architecture in the north has often been used to forcibly shape the life of Inuit people, and as Lateral Office note, it has “largely failed the region.”[8] So, how are these mis-steps not replicated in the projects on display in Venice? The composition of the design teams can be interpreted as responding to historical precedent. The inclusion of Inuit voices by way of Nunavut-based organizations is a gesture toward self-determination, but I’m not sure that consultation with Inuit people solves the problem of architecture as colonization. Lola Sheppard, a partner with Lateral Office, has noted that “there’s a long history in Canada’s north of imposing southern models of housing, of language, of education, and a lot of that has been exemplified in a slightly colonialist architecture. Certainly Nunavut Futures[the section of the project dedicated to future propositions for the region] is about asking how can architecture learn from its environment, both climatically, geographically, and culturally, and take cues in a smarter way and adapt to the environment rather than resisting or superimposing.” [9] In order for this kind of endeavour to be successful, for architecture to operate as cultural embodiment rather than in service of displaced didacticism or economic exploitation, architectural forms would have to bypass the practice of building as symbols of colonial authority and desire. This would require something more robust than consultation as a gesture toward social responsibility. Ideally, architectural projects would fully be the product of the culture itself.

Across the Giardini, at the Arsenal, the Biennale’s other main exhibition space, the project of the Kuwait pavilion re-articulates Koolhaas’s frame of absorption as Acquiring Modernity. This gesture reflects the very different relationships that parts of the world have to Western narratives of progress, highlighting the fact that the Kuwait state has only been independent from colonial rule for 53 years. The Kuwaiti project focuses on its country’s national museum, an iconic building designed by French architect Michel Ecochard that never seemed to compel the Kuwaiti people to attend and to this day remains severely underused. Central to Acquiring Modernity is this profound consideration: what are “the repercussions of commissioning architectural works towards the formation of [a] state”?[10] Alia Farid, the curator of the Kuwait pavilion, notes that “any attempt to establish order without the involvement of the communities being served can only ever succeed as a folly,” and this Arctic Adaptations seems to have gotten right by involving Inuit artists and incorporating Inuit voices into its projects.[11] But imagine the richness of reading the Canadian project through the Kuwaiti pavilion, of asking the proposals for northern architecture to consider what is at stake in a celebration of the territory’s formation through built form. By neglecting Inuit architecture prior to contact, Arctic Adaptations constructs Inuit history through the lens of settlement, even if it highlights the resilience of the culture in the face of the massive challenges and cultural adaptations that modernity has instigated in the North. Incorporating traditional arctic architecture would not have been nostalgic, but rather a frank recognition of the historical complexity of the region, and in my opinion, a vital precursor to projecting a new future for the north from the south in order to not replicate modernized forms of colonization.

When the awards were adjudicated for the Biennale, the jurors bestowed a special mention on Arctic Adaptations, citing “its in-depth study of how modernity adapts to a unique climatic condition and a local minority culture.”[12] The Canadian pavilion certainly does expand upon a common understanding of modernity, drawing attention to the challenges of any narrative that seeks to be universalizing. But the responsibility of nuance in this case is not necessarily to fold northern realities into an idea of modernity, but rather, to listen and take seriously realities outside of western and southern frames, working hard to meld thought and action around different ways of being. This project, while an important step in incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the narratives Canada understands and exports about itself, is only a beginning. While Arctic Adaptations succeeds at challenging the generalizing impulses of modernity, this is not the same as inviting an Indigenous curator or architecture studio to Venice to organize Canada’s representation. I acknowledge that there were many Indigenous people involved in Arctic Adaptations, however, I look forward to the day when, say, Douglas Cardinal, Wanda Dalla Costa, Brett MacIntyre, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, or Eladia Smoke stand centre stage in Venice on the behalf of all Canadians.

Lead image photo credit: Gordon Robertson Educational Centre, Papineau Gerin-Lajoie LeBlanc, 1973, Iqaluit, NU, Canada; courtesy Guy Gerin-Lajoie.

[1] Lateral Office, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 (Canada at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2014), page 6.

[2] “Canada at the Venice Biennale in Architecture,” Canada Council for the Arts, accessed 09 August 2014,

[3] “Inside ‘Arctic Adaptations’—Special Mention Winner at the Venice Biennale 2014 (video),” ArchDaily, accessed 30 August 2014,

[4] Lateral Office, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 (Canada at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2014), page 180.

[5] “Inside ‘Arctic Adaptations’—Special Mention Winner at the Venice Biennale 2014,” ArchDaily, accessed 30 August 2014,

[6] Lateral Office, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 (Canada at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2014), page 7. Further information about the program teams can be found here:

[7] While some pavilions featured built forms (such as Germany’s full-sized reconstruction of portions of the the Kanzlerbungalow [Chancellor’s Bungalow] in Bonn), the kinds of modeled propositions seen at Arctic Adaptations were not uncommon amongst the many other pavilions at the Biennale.

[8] Lateral Office, Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 (Canada at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2014), page 6.

[9] “Inside ‘Arctic Adaptations’—Special Mention Winner at the Venice Biennale 2014 (video),” ArchDaily, accessed 30 August 2014,

[10] Farid, Alia. “Curator’s Statement: Acquiring Modernity, Acquiring Meaning.” In Acquiring Modernity, ed. Noura Alsager (Venice, Italy and Kuwait City, Kuwait, National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters—State of Kuwait, 2014), page 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Awards of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition,” La Biennale, accessed 08 August 2014,

It must be noted that Inuit culture is not a minority culture in Nunavut. According to Nunavut Tourism, “the vast majority (84%) of [the population] are Inuit.”

“People of Nunavut,” Nunavut Tourism, accessed 05 September 2014,

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