This week, huge sculptures of rough lumber were parked in the lobby of a downtown office complex. At lunch hour, well-suited businesspeople cast curious looks at the display, and a few stopped to investigate: Where did this come from? What is it all about?
Good questions, and the exhibition, Migrating Landscapes, is asking some similar ones about Torontonians. It features young architects and designers from the GTA exploring ideas of home: how migration and cultural memory help us feel settled – or unsettled – where we live.
The show is one of a series of events across the country organized by the young Winnipeg architecture firm 5468796 and architecture professor Jae-Sung Chon. The firm won a competition to create Canada's official entry at the Venice Biennale in Architecture, a global fair where top talents represent their countries with boundary-pushing projects. "Where I come from, in Helsinki, even my grandmother knows about the Biennale," says 5468796's Johanna Hurme, who came to Canada as an adult. "So it's a tremendous honour to represent Canada."
And 5468796 created their own competition, Migrating Landscapes, to share the honour with young designers from across the country. This Wednesday, Feb. 22, a jury of design professionals will select the best Toronto entries, who will travel to Winnipeg for a national show and then, if they win, on to the world stage in Venice.
At the Toronto show, the 26 exhibits range from fanciful designs for funnel-shaped apartment buildings to purely metaphorical explorations – like a block of wood with one corner artfully carved away to evoke a family's departure point from a beach in Vietnam. It's a rich stew of ideas that will feed the creative buildings of the next decade.
"As architects, we have to push out there as far as we can," says Ms. Hurme. "We have to probe into the avant-garde before we ground our ideas in everyday needs. And I'm glad that the architects in the exhibition have taken that a long way; at this point, we're trying to push the boundaries of what architecture can be." But the theme, she suggests, should speak to all viewers, particularly in this city of immigrants.
For one team of entrants, Bi-Ying Miao and Jane Wong, it is very personal. Both working at high-powered local architecture firms, they are shaped by their Chinese background and their status as first- and second-generation immigrants, respectively. Their installation is a structure of taut string that draws on modernist form-making and traditional Chinese ornamental knots (the pan chang, which carries mystical significance in Buddhism) – all cut down the middle by a barely visible panel of high-tech Plexiglas. "That is the foreign element that straddles everything," Ms. Miao says, "creating reflection and doubles."
Ms. Miao's life in Canada has had a similar doubleness. "I grew up here, but totally alienated," she says. Canada began for her as an abstraction. She was seven years old in Shanghai, and her family had finally gotten the news they had awaited her whole life: They had won permission to emigrate. "We always knew we were leaving at some point. And then it happened very fast, and I knew nothing about Canada – I remember my grandmother showing it to me on a globe."
The family landed at Dupont and Dufferin, and she grew up, made friends, settled. When her parents moved to the suburbs a few years ago, she found herself shocked, "and after school, I've moved back to the same neighbourhood," she says with a laugh. Ms. Miao went to the University of Waterloo with her friend Ms. Wong, whose parents immigrated from Macau and Hong Kong. "I was born and raised in Toronto," Ms. Wong says, "but I think a large part of who I am is influenced by how my parents came to Canada in hopes for a better future. They see my childhood as almost a privilege, where I was able to live a comfortable life they did not have when they were younger. I continue to be reminded of this all the time."
Since her university years, Ms. Miao has been immersed in the globe-spanning art of architecture; she has worked in New York, London and Bhopal, India. Now she is working at Levitt Goodman Architects on a major redevelopment of a suburban shopping mall. Next stop: Graduate school. "And I don't know where I'm going yet," she says.
But she and Ms. Wong will, hopefully, make a stop in Venice.
Kenneth Chakasim's journey to the competition has been shorter geographically but, he says, just as long conceptually – and it includes the forced displacement of his Cree ancestors. Mr. Chakasim, an engineer and architect from Northern Ontario, has made one of the curviest and most beautiful works in the show – a pair of leaf-like forms, made of hidebound bentwood slats, that could be a model for a public building or simply a gesture toward more nature-like building forms.
"I'm also hoping people will read the juxtaposed quality many aboriginal or first nations people feel when they enter the urban environment," he says. "The city grid is an unsettling experience for many aboriginal peoples simply because of who they are – more accustomed to the natural world." He is hoping to bring those ideas into his own practice as an architect and as an architecture professor.
He and Bi-Ying Miao haven't met, but Ms. Miao, Ms. Wong and Mr. Chakasim are planning to be there for this week's unveiling of the winners. And they may end up colleagues in the ever-changing, increasingly collaborative and increasingly international profession. "The fact that Migrating Landscapes draws on such a broad sources is great," Ms. Miao says. "It's really what architecture is about, and it's really what Canada is."
Migrating Landscapes runs at Brookfield Place through Feb. 24. Accompanying videos are online at migratinglandscapes-on.tumblr.com.
Editor's note: The print version of this story and an earlier online version contained incorrect dates. This version has been updated with the correct dates.