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Arctic Adaptations: Inuit Architecture Showcased in Prestigious Venice Biennale

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.

Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Detail of the panel from the bentwood box returned to the Tlingit people by the Annenberg Foundation.

“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.

Photo: Kirt Ejesiak

Some of the Inuit designs that were showcased at the Venice Biennale.

“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.

“We have been studying and developing work in the region for several years, asking how architecture relates to climate, culture and geography,” White said. “For the Venice exhibition we wanted to develop a collaborative proposal, working with students, architects and Nunavummiut. We wanted to look back at how much had been transformed in the past hundred years and look forward to the next fifteen years, and see the possibilities, focusing on indigenous response to modernity. The need to build quickly and inexpensivly have largely driven architecture in Nunavut. This prevents innovative models, and building goes on as it did thirty years ago. There is a lack of new thinking to address traditional contemporary projects.”

Traditional contemporary projects are represented by a new generation of Inuit builders.

“We have always been very creative, and have to foster that today with the creation of a university in Iqaluit,” said Ejesiak, who earned a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University. “It is necessary for the young people to provide their ideas, so that they would not have to go away, leave their families. It is hard to pack up for Montreal! The dropout rate from school is very high, and we have to encourage the kids, provide them with a good future. Our problem is connected to the fact that they do not finish school, thus the migration of our people to bigger centers. I was the first Inuit from Nunavut to study at Harvard, and wanted to show the way for other people. If I can do it, they can do it.”

With the Inuits’ relocation, trading posts, military infrastructures and research stations were built, and small settlements emerged as Arctic cities. But as Ejesiak emphasizes, this has left no meaningful institutions for the communities, an omission he plans to remedy.

“In our university we will include the best of Inuit artistry: clothing, carving and cosmology!,” he said. “Inuit’s knowledge of stars and planets is remarkable, and you will never read about it! We will create a facility for elders, to learn their knowledge of sustainable harvesting, animal behavior.”

Ceporah Means, an exhibit attendant from Iqaluit Qaujigiartiit Health research center, concurred.

”Over the past 60 years, colonization established settlements, that Inuit moved into, and we have adapted to live in such communities,” Means said. “But we are still hunting and fishing, so it is important to hear the Inuit voices, to create something innovative, representing the people. I am 28. Maintaining our culture and traditional lifestyle matters for my generation. Yes, we want to explore; but many, like me—who studied in Ottawa—go back to their communities. I did, and learned to make boots of sealskin: I always joke it is my Master’s degree!“

By surveying a recent architectural past, a current urbanizing present and a projective near future of architecture in Nunavut, Arctic Adaptations won a Special Award, the first honor for a Canadian Pavilion at the Biennale.

“We hope the project will create a talking point to advocate for a new thinking about architecture, and how it might address twenty-first century needs for Nunavummiut,” explained White.

Photo: Courtesy of Kirt Ejesiak

Caption: Nunavummiut attending the Venice Biennale: Back Row, left to right: Tim Brown, Josh Armstrong, Colleen Healey, Gwen Healey, Janet Armstrong, Ceporah Mearns, Christine Lamothe, Gary Philip, Rowena House; front row: Kirt Ejesiak, Cate Brown, Bryan Pearson, Greg Morgan, David Nibgoarsi, Goretti Kakuktinniq

For Means, the presence of Inuit people in Venice as a living reality, and the encounter with the public, was an essential aspect of the event.

“Many people do not know where Nunavut is,” Means said. “Some are not even aware it exists! The reactions of the visitors were positive, and I enjoyed their questions. Being part of the Biennale was a great learning experience! I love Venice: When I walk into a church that’s a hundred years old, I cannot believe it, coming from a culture with an oral tradition, where we cannot put a date on a story, or an event, since we do not have physical structures, like the ones I discovered in Venice. We would not be able to say which inuksuk was built when, as there are no dates on them. We only have stories.

“So being at the Biennale, and sharing at the world stage, was important for Nunavut, as we are still unknown, or looked at like nomads, as in the past,” Means said. “But today we are looking to the future, with a university in Nunavut, where we will train Inuit for the territory.”

It was a feeling shared by Ejesiak.

“This first time for Nunavut in Venice was an exciting opportunity for the young people, and a learning experience for all of us,” Ejesiak said. “By taking into consideration our lifestyle with new designs, this event will create more awareness, showing that Inuit can be part of a process. The small-box model is over!”