by Bhawna JaiminiJun 16, 2022
A scaffolding-like structure with bare metal beams running amok over a zig-zag glazed encasement houses the exhibition Not for Sale, which is Canada’s representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts. The pavilion conceived by the Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) puts a spotlight on the ongoing housing crisis in Canada whose roots lie in the capitalist and colonialist dispossession of people from their lands and homes. The tectonically-loaded space at the Giardini is set up as the campaign headquarters for AAHA—a curatorial collective comprising architects, artists, and activists—calling forth the architecture community to join the movement rallying for equitable and affordable housing for all. Adrian Blackwell and Sara Stevens of AAHA sat down with STIR to discuss the tenets of the campaign, the idea of collective curation, the design of the pavilion, and how it sits within the biennale’s overarching theme.
Seemingly looking like a city in progress, the unfinished nature of the pavilion is what catches the attention. The idea, as Blackwell tells STIR, was to evoke the feeling of something that is being made and also the fast-paced nature of construction in Canada. The unfinished aesthetics and the workshop-like setup also nod to the biennale’s theme Laboratory of the Future as per the Toronto-based architect, artist, and educator. Not for Sale!, as explained in the curatorial note, describes and denounces the impact of real estate speculation that converts homes into financial assets, aggravating a range of issues including a general lack of affordability, precarious housing, and homelessness. By bringing the architectural movement to Venice, AAHA’s intent has been to expand its potential through collaborative engagement. Stevens, an architectural and urban historian, refers to Not for Sale! as a moment within a longer campaign that doesn’t stop in Venice. In addition to Blackwell and Stevens, the collective’s key team consists of David Fortin, Matthew Soules, Patrick Stewart, and Tijana Vujosevic. “Each of us does some kind of research that overlaps land, housing, colonisation, and financialisation, and these were the themes that connected us. We were interested in the biennale because we felt it was an opportunity to leverage something bigger. We thought this is a chance to raise awareness around issues of housing with [the] broader public, to have architects who can be a part of a movement for change, and see where we can take it from here,” explains Stevens.
Taking up the interiors of the pavilion is a campaign of 10 demands which include Land Back, Collective Ownership, Gentrification Tax, Reparative Architecture, On the Land Housing, and Surplus Properties for Housing. The pavilion’s wooden interiors are conceived as a workshop with a mezzanine and a courtyard. The idea has been to diversify the space and also to allow views of the outdoors in. The building is encased around an additional outer skin that sports large posters depicting vignettes of the housing crisis in Canada. Capturing a sense of vandalism right at the entrance connects to the unjust takeovers of lands in the nation that leave countless indigenous communities homeless and displaced from their roots. An inconspicuous path leads into the pavilion, cocooned as a bustling laboratory of housing ideas. Throughout the biennale’s run, AAHA collective will be working with architects, advocates of non-alienated housing, and community organisations in a set of teams to further the campaign. The exhibition space has also been turned into a design studio for students from the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. Here working within a creatively charged environment—of the pavilion and the architectural microcosm of the biennale—students collaborate on research, writing, events, and visualisations to develop the demands addressing housing alienation, and presenting visions for equitable housing in Canada.
“The pavilion works as a set of layers where we have the problem on the outside, and then we have the panorama of the nation with these ten demand banners showing some kind of a possible future at the farthest layer,” Blackwell tells STIR. While the mezzanine is dedicated as an intimate workspace, the floor below is curated as the main exhibition area where enclosing walls and partitions are turned into panels to showcase drawings, posters, artworks, and research studies. The display and seating are kept on the periphery leaving a lot of free space to open up inside that allows easy circulation for visitors to navigate the areas demarcated to the 10 demands. Dotted through the space are reading shelves and a few tables where campaign advocates remain accessible to the visitors, also giving students a semi-social space to work in.
Outside, the lively courtyard is designed by Nisga’a architect Patrick Stewart as a “kaleidoscopic viewing machine that lets one have glimpses into the pavilion in different directions, at the panorama of the nation composed of the 10 banners,” says Blackwell. “What is usually a barren set of gravel we turned into a lush garden which is modelled on an indigenous barricade.” As per Blackwell, the barricade is a big part of the way the Land Back is fought for within Canada. The two words—Land Back—have a popular presence across rallies, gatherings, and protests in Canada where the decentralised campaign seeks to reclaim indigenous sovereignty, with political and economic control of ancestral lands that belong to the indigenous communities. “The garden represents the barricade but is also filled with plants from the Pacific-Northwest where Patrick Steward’s homeland is—in Nisca’a territory (an indigenous area marked by the Nass River Valley of British Columbia). It has plants which are all grown in Italy but are either native or have similar forms that belong to the Pacific Northwest,” Blackwell adds.
Both Blackwell and Stevens emphasise the identity of AAHA as a campaign rather than a practice. What gave the genesis of a collective curation for them, STIR asks. By bringing a number of people with related ideas but also different specialisations together, we were able to create a set of ideas that we feel reflect a broader set of problems that we couldn’t address individually. It was important to work collectively to try to jumpstart a movement or a campaign," observes Blackwell. To take a campaign forward requires the efforts of many; it cannot be done by a single individual. Not for Sale! probes into the role of architects beyond creatives who build our cities and homes and the collective change the architectural community can usher. As custodians who shape our built environment, perhaps it is time they shift their myopic gaze to real issues permeating our cities.