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November 20, 2017
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Organizers Jae-Sung Chon and Johanna Hurme at the opening of the Toronto exhibition of Migrating Landscapes in the Allen Lambert Galleria of Brookfield Place (Photograph by Karen Lin).

This summer as the fanfare of the 2012 Olympic Games quiets down in London, a celebration of contemporary art and design will begin at the 13th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition. Running from August 29 until November 25, 2012, the Biennale, or the "Olympics of Architecture," is the world's most prestigious architectural exhibition. Representing Canada in the race for the Biennale's coveted "Golden Lion for Best National Participation" is Migrating Landscapes, a project that reflects on stories of migration and immigration and examines how Canadians express their diverse cultural memories in the way they live and build.  

Adaptive dwelling by Richard Li. 
(Image courtesy of Migrating Landscapes
Organizers. Photography by Theo Skudra/
Tom Glass Pictures.)

The project emerged from the individual experiences of the Migrating Landscapes Organizers (MLO), Johanna Hurme of Finland, Sasa Radulovic from the former Yugoslavia - founding partners of Winnipeg-based 5468796 Architecture - and South Korean-born Jae-Sung Chon from the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture. Although they each grew up worlds apart - speaking different languages and living in the context of different cultures, landscapes and architectural settings - when they met in Canada, they were united by their shared experiences of "unsettling encounters" and the challenges of settling in a foreign land. All first-generation immigrants, they, like most migrant Canadians, had to learn and adapt while they settled into their new homes, integrated with a new culture, and developed new lifestyles.

As a country built on immigration, it is this "settling-unsettling" dynamic that inspired the MLO to delve into Canadians' stories and explore what it means for Canadian architecture. "When people migrate, they carry with them very specific memories of place and cultural heritage," explains Hurme. "These migrated memories have to negotiate with their new location and culture, resulting in an experience in which an immigrant never settles or unsettles."

"The architecture that results from such an experience is neither of the present or past location," adds Chon. "Instead, it's something new and unique that resonates with both locations as well as one's cultural memories."

Bringing to mind the Olympic Torch Relay, Migrating Landscapes has been rallying support while travelling across Canada, stopping in seven cities - Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. As a nationwide competition and exhibition, Migrating Landscapes passed the torch to Canadian architects and designers ages 45 and under, calling on them to share their stories of migration via video and to design architectural models of dwellings (or homes) that reflect on these experiences. The installation features the videos and residential models displayed in an infrastructure assembled from vertically positioned raw wood lumber, designed by the MLO to represent an act of "settling into a new landscape."

Interwoven experiences suspended over a
landscape by Bi-Ying Miao and Jane Wong.
(Image courtesy of Migrating Landscapes
Organizers. Photography by Theo Skudra/
Tom Glass Pictures.)

As a visitor to the exhibition, one's first impression may be that it is very abstract and foreign, which is the exact intention of the MLO.  The "new landscape" not only represents physical surroundings, but also the cultural, social, political and economic landscape. It is not a formal reference to Canada or any other specific place, rather it is meant to be reminiscent of that feeling of a first encounter with a strange land - scan your new environment, take in the smells, evaluate the elevations, do you feel safe, where are you going to put down your bags? What will you call home?

The Toronto installment of Migrating Landscapes presented the responses of 26 entries from around Ontario. Each conveying a unique story, the entrants' proposals reveal intriguing themes of the Canadian migration experience and expressions through architectural design. When Richard Li landed in a Canadian suburban neighbourhood from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, he felt isolated by the vastness of his new home.  His model of clear rectangular tubes demonstrates how he had to shift his preconceived notions of home and life that he had established in Hong Kong and change himself to fit in the new landscape. Bi-Ying Miao and Jane Wong also found adaptation a necessity; however, they chose to interlace Chinese traditions into their lives. "The weave of this dwelling gathers the memories of my past and connects them to the present," explains the pair. They further articulated this in the colourful threads and knots of their hanged dwelling, which curiously resembles a dragon - a legendary creature in Chinese mythology.

Paul Murdoch appreciates the view from
above. Image courtesy of Migrating
Landscapes Organizers. Photography by 
Theo Skudra/Tom Glass Pictures.

For Paul Murdoch, who moved from Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto, his suspended dwelling did not represent a sense of unsettled, but rather the excitement of exploring a bigger city. His fascination with rooftop architecture and elevated landscapes arose from a love of the expansive skyline viewed from above the city. Christina Kalt and Emre Yurga's entry symbolises Emre's experience as a refugee, where the body is the only place they can truly claim as home. A reconstructed "skin" is the manifestation of what holds up the body and shapes the context of a space. They explain, "Body as home is a recollection space for remembering many stories about one's past and daydreams about one's future." The design of the "skin" is based on the paper origami fortuneteller - also known as a "cootie catcher" among children.

When the MLO were asked to describe how they would define Canadian architecture, Hurme responded, "The world is much more plural these days, not only in Canada, but especially in Canada. It's hard to say that this is Canadian architecture. I think we are going to see multifaceted responses. It is a reflection of who we are." Chon added, "I think that we tend to think that holding onto something creates an identity - holding our past or holding our national geography - but in the context of present society, everybody is a migrant. Thinking about that in a more open fashion might actually give us a better chance to understand who we are. We are multicultural as some other countries are multicultural, but how are we different from other places? That is an interesting discussion."

Home is the body by Christina Kalt and Emre Yurga. 
(Image courtesy of Migrating Landscapes Organizers. 
Photography by Theo Skudra/Tom Glass Pictures.)

As the Winnipeg Art Gallery states, "Migrating Landscapes is a timely and provocative exhibition, particularly as immigration is becoming so hotly debated in many parts of the world." It was therefore of no surprise when David Chipperfield, director of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, announced the theme Common Ground. "I am interested in the things that architects share in common, from the conditions of the practice of architecture to the influences, collaborations, histories and affinities that frame and contextualise our work," Chipperfield explained. "I want to take the opportunity of the Biennale to reinforce our understanding of architectural culture, and to emphasise the philosophical and practical continuities that define it."

The Common Ground theme was only recently declared in January, well into the development of the Migrating Landscapes project. Hurme admits that many high-fives were flying around the 5468796 Architecture office when they learned how perfect a fit the Canadian entry would be. As Canadians wish them luck in bringing home the prize (it would be Canada's first ever win), the intention of Migrating Landscapes has already been accomplished: to strengthen the design-culture landscape in Canada by showcasing the upcoming generation of Canadian architects and designers, at home and on the world stage in Venice, while simultaneously provoking, exposing, and documenting the stories that make up Canada's cultural fabric and national identity.


"Team Canada's" National Exhibition will take place at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from March 15 to April 29, 2012. To follow Migrating Landscapes to the 2012 Venice Biennale in Architecture, visit www.migratinglandscapes.com

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