Canadian Art - - Legacy - By David Mi­chon

A look back at the his­tory of the “no­to­ri­ously in­hos­pitable” and soon-to-be-re­stored Canada Pav­il­ion in Venice re­veals it as one of the Giar­dini’s most in­trigu­ing art­works

“The Pav­il­ion doesn’t even have a bath­room,” quipped cu­ra­tor Bar­bara Fis­cher about Venice’s Canada Pav­il­ion in a May 2009 Globe and Mail ar­ti­cle. That year Fis­cher cu­rated Mark Lewis, whose large-scale pro­jec­tions tested the lim­its of the small build­ing. One could add to her list: no proper stor­age space, no run­ning wa­ter, no ad­e­quately ad­justable light­ing, un­re­li­able Wifi. For some of these things, Cana­di­ans have had to de­pend on their Neo­clas­si­cal neigh­bours in Venice’s Giar­dini di Castello, Britain and Germany—whose much larger pavil­ions Canada’s is nes­tled be­tween, and ar­guably dwarfed by. Oc­ca­sion­ally these neigh­bours refuse their ameni­ties, as Britain did in 2007, when Cana­di­ans had to wad­dle to the French for re­lief.

Canada’s pav­il­ion is a se­ries of gallery spa­ces ar­ranged in a shell-like spi­ral. Trees, en­cased in glass, pen­e­trate it. The brick, glass, wood and steel I-beam struc­ture has a slop­ing roof that peaks at the spi­ral’s cen­tre. Out back, there is a small plein-air court­yard. Move­able par­ti­tion walls, with legs that fit into cop­per holes in the ter­razzo floor, of­fer a mod­est, re­stricted abil­ity to re­ar­range the space.

Built be­tween 1954 and 1958, the Canada Pav­il­ion had a small bud­get— only $25,000 CAD (the equiv­a­lent of ap­prox­i­mately $210,000 to­day)— supplied by the Ital­ians via a re­serve of lire, held by Canada, and in­tended for use on cul­tural projects in Italy, in a kind of self-serv­ing war repa­ra­tion. Mi­lanese firm BBPR was se­lected to de­sign the pav­il­ion, and the pro­ject was led by one of its epony­mous part­ners, En­rico Per­es­sutti, a 46-year-old who had helped make a name for BBPR be­fore and af­ter the Sec­ond World War as lead­ers, and then re­form­ers, of Ital­ian Modernism.

De­spite an early ad­her­ence to ra­tio­nal­ism, BBPR be­came em­broiled in re­sis­tance, in part aes­thetic, to the Mus­solini regime. The war rocked BBPR’S part­ners: Gian Luigi Banfi was mur­dered in the Mau­thausen-gusen con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1945; Lodovico Bar­biano di Bel­gio­joso sur­vived that same camp; Ernesto Nathan Rogers, a Jew, es­caped to Switzer­land. The three sur­vivors re­united in Mi­lan af­ter the war ended, with their per­spec­tives on de­sign duly gal­va­nized.

Per­es­sutti and BBPR wanted an ar­chi­tec­ture that might forge a new type of so­ci­ety. They re­jected mon­u­men­tal­ity, tak­ing a more con­tex­tual ap­proach that re­flected heav­ily on time and space, and fo­cused on hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. Cov­er­ing its 1958 in­au­gu­ra­tion, Cana­dian Art praised the small pav­il­ion as “ex­cep­tion­ally fine,” with grace and el­e­gance, orig­i­nal­ity and (how Cana­dian) un­pre­ten­tious­ness. The first show there was of paint­ings and sculp­tures: a ret­ro­spec­tive of James Wil­son Mor­rice, and new work by Jack Ni­chols, Anne Ka­hane and Jac­ques de Ton­nan­cour.

In re­cent years, artists and cu­ra­tors have com­pared the pav­il­ion to a wig­wam, a bird­house, a shed and a Parks Canada in­for­ma­tion cen­tre. It is also, ac­cord­ing to some of these same artists and cu­ra­tors, Fis­cher among them, not fully ap­pro­pri­ate for the dis­play of art. Its form is awk­ward, with many glass walls; its con­di­tion is in­creas­ingly de­crepit, though some small ren­o­va­tions were un­der­taken in 2009. Even the Canada Coun­cil, for­mer man­agers of the pav­il­ion, have re­ferred to it as “no­to­ri­ously in­hos­pitable to con­tem­po­rary art­work and in par­tic­u­lar to new me­dia.” The pav­il­ion’s new man­agers since 2011, the Na­tional Gallery of Canada, are be­gin­ning restora­tion work on the struc­ture, slated to be fin­ished in 2018.

Yet the pav­il­ion’s prime lo­ca­tion and quiet pres­ence, as well as its place within the tra­jec­tory of Ital­ian ar­chi­tec­ture, par­tic­u­larly as a relic of BBPR’S oft-for­got­ten im­pact, make it one of the Giar­dini’s more in­trigu­ing build­ings. Artists who show here must con­sider and re­act to the space—it can never be a white cube—thus re­al­iz­ing Per­es­sutti’s de­sire for peo­ple to pon­der the space and its trees, scale, ma­te­ri­al­ity and form. To ex­pe­ri­ence the Canada Pav­il­ion, ei­ther crit­i­cally or with won­der, is to en­gage with his­tory, con­text and hu­man­ism. Per­es­sutti’s struc­ture ac­knowl­edges na­ture: that of Canada, and of the pav­il­ion’s ver­dant spot in the Giar­dini, over­look­ing the la­goon. In a sea of os­ten­ta­tion—germany’s aus­tere, grandiose build­ing was fa­mously re­built in 1938 on Hitler’s or­ders—the Canada Pav­il­ion tells a de­sign story that is strik­ingly ac­ces­si­ble.

Cu­ra­tor Josée Drouin-brise­bois, who brought Steven Shearer to Venice in 2011, spent some time look­ing into the story of Per­es­sutti af­ter vis­it­ing the pav­il­ion with Shearer, who was at the site for the first time. In Shearer’s mono­graph, she quotes BBPR: “From the masters we have learned not to im­i­tate past styles,” they as­sert, “but in de­sign­ing a new or­gan­ism we strive to put it into a ‘sym­pa­thetic’ re­la­tion­ship with its sur­round­ings, whether nat­u­ral or man-made.” BBPR thought of Modernism as a “con­tin­u­ous rev­o­lu­tion.” In Per­es­sutti’s world, a Bi­en­nale ex­hi­bi­tion meant paint­ings on walls and sculp­tures on plinths. His was also a world in which ar­chi­tec­ture was ac­tive, nar­ra­tive and unique. Such qual­i­ties may be un­suit­able to a gallery, but they de­fine many great works of art. ■

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