Canada is a country of imposters. Of stand-ins. Of places that pass for other places.
This is the paradoxical argument that drives Canada’s entry at the 2020 Venice Biennale in Architecture.
The Canada Council announced this week that it’s chosen a show called Impostor Cities, from a team led by Montreal architect and academic David Theodore and architect Thomas Balaban. They will mount an exhibition in Venice at the Biennale, the international showcase that brings together architects and thinkers from around the world.
Impostor Cities is an exploration of a straightforward idea: “Cities in Canada don’t play themselves in films,” Dr. Theodore says. “They play other cities.” He cites the quadrangle at Simon Fraser University by Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey (as seen on Battlestar Galactica) and Charles Pomphrey’s R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in Toronto as examples; each has some sort of generic quality that makes it suitable as a backdrop to film.
The exhibition will include screenings of supercuts – assemblages of the onscreen appearances of a given place – and an interactive library that provides the history of the selected buildings. “We’re going to present these buildings the way they are seen by the public,” Mr. Balaban says in a phone interview, "and also present the architect’s view.” In this way, he says, the show could “bridge the distance” between the insular world of the profession and the broader culture that’s touched by its work.
One thing is clear; this is not a survey of Canadian architecture. “I’m not convinced that the way to think about Canadian architecture is by those 19th-century categories of climate, geography” and so on, Dr. Theodore says. “If Toronto City Hall can appear on another planet” – as it did, in Star Trek: The Next Generation – “how can you say that Canadian climate and critical regionalism are what shapes our architecture?”
Dr. Theodore’s view reflects a broad skepticism in the academy about the very idea of a national architecture. Such arguments are rooted in 19th-century nationalism, “defined by blood, soil and connection to the land,” as Dr. Theodore puts it. But such ambivalence seems to resonate even more strongly in Canada, at least outside of Quebec. (In Quebec cinema, as Dr. Theodore points out, Montreal plays itself.)
And as Mr. Balaban says, some of Canada’s most important buildings are based on foreign precedents or designed in Modernist style to be placeless. “We have some really exemplary buildings in styles that are international.”
Much of Canadian cultural nationalism is recent and somewhat provisional. Canada’s national pavilion in Venice, the building within a public garden that hosts Canada’s Biennale exhibitions, was completed in 1956 and designed by a Milanese architecture firm. “It is a domed tepee, made by Italian architects,” Dr. Theodore accurately points out. “To what degree does that represent Canada?”
Imposter Cities is not, clearly, an exercise in nationalist boosterism, or even a show that makes a clear statement about what Canadian architecture is. In that respect it follows recent tradition. Last year’s exhibition, UNCEDED, was a broad survey of Indigenous ideas in architecture. The 2016 show, Extraction, led by landscape architect Pierre Bélanger, was an installation that addressed Canada’s relationship with resource extraction. Its pièce de résistance was a “counter-monument,” a hole in the ground, to which visitors had to lower an eye in order to watch an elliptical short film.
The Impostor Cities show will not require visitors to get down on their knees, but it promises to use the physical space around the pavilion in clever ways. Mr. Balaban explains that the curators intend to wrap the building in a green screen – material of a precise colour that makes it invisible to video cameras. “Online, we’ll be able to fill it in each day with real buildings.” In this way Canada might impose itself on Venice, if only in the form of an image.