Kirt Ejesiak
Visitors check out 'Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15' at the 14th International Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Arctic Adaptations: Inuit Architecture Showcased in Prestigious Venice Biennale

Dominique Godreche

For the first time in the 14-year history of the International Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Nunavut flag flew at the entrance to the Canadian Pavilion, an Inukshuk floating at the entrance of “Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15.

The exhibit, curated by architects Lola Sheppard and Mason White, from Toronto-based design firm Lateral Office, coincides with the 15th anniversary of the territory’s creation. Arctic Adaptations documents architectural history in Nunavut, describing the realities of its communities, introducing the future role of architecture, and responding to the theme suggested by the director of the Biennale, Rem Koolhaas: Absorbing Modernity, 1914–2014.

“We hope that people will not settle for generic architecture,” said White, “but instead, celebrate contemporary traditional culture, through traditional contemporary buildings. This is what we wished to show, that it is possible to envision buildings that respond to the culture, geography and territory of Nunavut.”

Kirt Ejesiak, president of Panaq Design, an Iqaluit-based consultant group offering construction services in Nunavut, emphasizes, “it is time to understand that the North is not a white mass of nothing! The exhibition provides an introduction to our challenges in the Arctic, and hopefully incites people to visit us, see first hand our challenges when building in the North. The main one is to understand the Inuit lifestyle and take into account our hunting, fishing and harsh environment, in a way that does not bankrupt the organizations, as it is very expensive. Also, this project empowers the Inuit to become part of the process, with an architecture that makes sense to us; because building design has always been done by people from outside, with ideas totally disconnected from our reality.”

With more than 300,000 visitors attending the Biennale, the Pavilion was a rare opportunity to showcase Nunavut and the Inuit culture. Divided into three sections—soapstone carvings of emblematic buildings made by Inuit artists, topographic models, photographs of the 25 communities, and architecture models with integrated animations—the exhibition projects a 15-year vision, addressing current challenges in housing, health, arts, education and recreation: a unique initiative between the local populations of Nunavut and Canadian teams.

“We have been traveling throughout Canada's North for the past six years, and became quickly aware that there was no authentic northern vernacular that had emerged,” said Sheppard, recalling the project’s history. “Southern models of architecture have historically been imported to the North, and largely proved to be a failure. Housing in Nunavut, in particular, has been problematic. There was, and continues to be, tremendous issues of overcrowding, because of lack of housing units. From a technical perspective, many buildings from the 1950s and ’60s failed, with respect to basic issues of building orientation and insulation. There are other challenges, such as permafrost: You have to build above the ground so that the construction and buildings do not warm and melt the frozen ground beneath buildings. Culturally houses were ill-adapted because community life is very different among Nunavummiut than in the South; large families will often gather and prepare seal or caribou in houses and kitchens little adapted for such activities."

Presenting innovative architecture proposals rooted in Nunavut, related to climatic and cultural issues, reflecting the traditions of migration and seasonality, Arctic Adaptations allows the visitor to catch at one glimpse a global perspective of the major challenges in modern-day Nunavut, looking at his past, present, and future, including today’s visions of the Inuit.

“The exhibition is a good marriage between high tech and a traditional approach,” said an enthusiastic Ejesiak, who plans to build a university in the Arctic. “Canada took a different step by including people from the North. Usually private builders come with a design working in Ottawa, but not with the Inuit lifestyle: We hunt, fish. We need easy access to the ocean, storage for the equipment, the fish. You cannot bring it into an apartment! We are tired of experts from Brussels, Paris, DC, telling us what we already know about ourselves: We can speak on our behalf!”

Creating architectural designs that are adapted to Nunavummiut lifestyle, which embraces the seasonal patterns, cultural traditions and logistical realities of the North, is what motivates Sheppard and White.


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