Concept: Modernity at an Edge

Modernity is typically unconcerned with the specificities of place, or even the premise of “the local.” Yet in a place with sometimes little to no daylight, temperatures averaging below freezing, no roads, and a people that live out on the land, modernity has been pushed to its limits. The climate, geography, and people of the Canadian Arctic challenge the viability of a universalizing modernity. A host of contextual particularities seems to resist modernism’s universalizing agenda. Following the age of exploration in the 20th century, modern architecture encroached on this remote and vast region of Canada, sometimes in the name of sovereignty, aboriginal affairs management, resources, or trade, among others. However, the Inuit have inhabited the Canadian Arctic for millennia as a traditionally semi-nomadic people. Inuit relations with Canada have been fraught with acts of neglect, resistance, and negotiation. Throughout the last 75 years, architecture, infrastructure, and settlements have been the tools for these acts. People have been re-located; trading posts, military infrastructure, and research stations have been built; even small settlements are now emerging as Arctic cities. Some have described this rapid confrontation with modernity as a transition “from igloos to internet” in 40 years. This abruptness has revealed powerful traits among its people—adaptation and resilience.

Nunavut and Nunavummiut

Nowhere is the trait of adaptation in the face of modernity better exemplified than Canada’s newest, largest, and most northerly territory: Nunavut. Nunavut, which means “our land,” was separated officially from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999 following a land claims agreement established in 1993. Today, there are almost 33,000 people (Nunavummiut) living in 25 communities in Nunavut, across a massive two million square kilometres. Over 60% of the population is under the age of 25, making it a young, dynamic urbanizing nation. Communities range in population from 120 in the smallest hamlet to 7,000 in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital city. This region is above the tree line and has no highways connecting communities. The myth of the Canadian north is tied to its unique geography – vast, sparsely populated, fragile, and sublime. Yet Nunavut, like the entire Arctic region, is undergoing dramatic transformation as powerful climatic, social, and economic pressures rapidly collide.

Nunavut (ᓄᓇᕗᑦ) was founded April 1, 1999.

Nunavut (ᓄᓇᕗᑦ) was founded April 1, 1999.

The unique climate, geography, and culture of the Canadian North offer the opportunity, indeed demands, that architects and planners rethink how buildings and infrastructures should operate. Faced with these challenges, architecture typically operates as a problem-solver, whereas Arctic Adaptations argues the possibility of architecture as an opportunity-seeker. In a landscape of extremes that oscillates between freeze and thaw, dark and light, accessible and inaccessible, Arctic Adaptations reflects on a difficult past, a challenging present, and envisions a future architecture that is adaptive, responsive, and rooted in Nunavut’s unique geography, climate, and culture.

Map of Nunavut

Map of Nunavut and its 25 communities.

Exhibition: Adapting Modernity, 1914-2029

The Canada Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, entitled Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, is a team-based submission initiated and led by the design-research studio Lateral Office. The exhibition marks the 15th anniversary of the founding of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, in 1999, and its rapid rise. Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 surveys a century of arctic architecture, an urbanizing present, and a projective near future of adaptive architecture in Nunavut. Each of these components documents architectural history in this remarkable but relatively little known region of Canada, describes the contemporary realities of life in its communities, and examines an adapting role for architecture moving forward.

Arctic Adaptations at Canada’s Pavilion in Venice.

Arctic Adaptations at Canada’s Pavilion in Venice.

The exhibition environment is comprised of three integrated elements: (1) soapstone carvings of little-known, but significant works of architecture, (2) topographic models and photographs of each of the 25 communities in Nunavut, and (3) a series of 15 architecture models with integrated animations projecting a 15-year vision for addressing current challenges in access and delivery of housing, health, arts, education, and recreation. Carvings were completed in January and March 2014 through a collaboration with Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association. Photography was completed in 2013-2014 in collaboration with Nick Illauq, an Inuk photographer based in Clyde River, and includes 25 original photographs from residents. Topographic models were completed through information gathered from each of the 25 hamlets, towns, and cities in Nunavut. Animated architectural models were completed through collaborations of 5 design teams made of a Nunavut-based organization, a Canadian School of Architecture, and an Architecture practice with knowledge and familiarity in working in Canada’s North. It argues that a modern Inuit culture continues to evolve that merges the traditional and the contemporary in unique and innovative ways. Can architecture, which has largely failed this region both technically and socially, be equally innovative and adaptive?

Exhibition interior.

Arctic Adaptations exhibition interior.


The 14th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia is the most important and prestigious international event in contemporary architecture, similar to an Olympics for Architecture. As the largest tourist event in Italy, it is also a “must-see” attraction for visitors to Venice. The Biennale Architettura 2014 is held in the Giardini Pubblici (Public Gardens) and Arsenale (former shipyards), just a short walk from St. Mark’s Square on the main waterfront of Venice. Canada is one of only 30 countries to have a permanent national pavilion at the Biennale. Our official 2014 entry, Arctic Adaptations, will be installed in the Canada Pavilion, located at a key position in the Giardini, with panoramic views of the historic city and lagoon. This provides us with a unique opportunity to showcase Canadian excellence in architecture on the world stage. More than 300,000 international visitors will attend the Biennale Architettura 2014 to be inspired by cutting-edge architecture, share ideas, and network with peers in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Millions more will be exposed to the Venice Biennale through the international media coverage, a dedicated website, and an exhibition catalogue. The Director of the Biennale Architettura 2014 is Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. He has chosen “Fundamentals” as its theme, and has urged national pavilions to address the idea of Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014, “to show, each in their own way, the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favour of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language in a single repertoire of typologies.” The Biennale will be open to the public from June 7 to November 23, 2014.

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