MOV presents past, present, and possible future of Nunavut


Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 is an architectural exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) until December 13 which explores and reflects on Nunavut through the lens of architecture and the built environment.

Organized and curated by Lateral Office, a Toronto-based architecture, urbanism and landscape design studio, the exhibition was originally shown in 2014 at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia, the world’s most important and prestigious event for contemporary architecture. Arctic Adaptations also won an honourable mention from the jury, the first such honour for a Canadian project.

Taking as a starting point the curatorial call of the Biennale, the exhibition is a response to the effects of modernity in the 20th century, which erased national characteristics in order to create a universal language of space.

Arctic Adaptations consists of three distinct but interrelated elements, examining at the past, present and future of architecture in Nunavut, a space normally defined by its expansive absence of human presence. The past is represented by 13 soapstone carvings of buildings in Nunavut. These trace significant developments in the territory’s architectural past, from the introduction of prefabricated housing, modernist interventions, and contemporary public architecture.

The urbanized present is represented through three-dimensional topographic maps and photographs of all 25 of Nunavut’s communities. The maps, carved from white stone disks, are particularly captivating. They include every building in the community, using stone to stand in for landforms, grooves for rivers, small lakes, and airport runways, and the gaps left by negative space for larger bodies of water. These near-minimalist depictions of land and space are both intriguing and other-worldly, captivating the essence of how compact yet disperse Nunavut is.

The adaptive future is depicted through five animated architectural models which focus on recreation, health, housing, education, and the arts. Combining projections and physical models, they look at the issues through regional, local, and human scales. In so doing, they capture a glimpse of the unique challenges that affect the province. This part of the exhibit is the result of competitions at five Canadian architectural schools, where the winning students were then paired up with local organizations and architecture firms in Nunavut. They then worked together to develop the student’s chosen ideas.  

This aspect of inclusion and collaboration is reflected not just in the adaptive future, but in the involvement of Nunavummiut (people from Nunavut) at every stage of the process, from consultation to production. The photography of the present was organised by a local photographer, and photos were taken by residents of those communities, while the soapstone carvings were similarly sourced by local talent.

The approach to the exhibit reflects the focus on the impact of modernity. Throughout the 20th century, southern knowledge, policies, and architecture were imposed on the territory, greatly affecting its condition.

It’s a small, but excellent exhibit, providing a strong introduction to Nunavut’s built environment by exploring its architectural past, present, and possible future. In some ways the exhibit succeeded too well, in that I found myself wanting to know more about the area and its architecture. Most of Canada knows very little about our youngest territory, and one easily leaves the MOV more curious than they were upon entry.

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