An understated icon: the Canada Pavilion in Venice is reborn

Inauguration of the Canada Pavilion at the Biennale Arte XXIX, 1958. Photo: National Gallery of Canada

Now celebrating its 60th year, the Canada Pavilion in Venice’s Giardini di Castello has a rich history despite its modest size;  the building was commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada and financed with Italian funds owed to Canada for wartime relief.  Naturally, there were a few caveats: As these funds could only be spent in Italy, the project had to be given to an Italian architect, excavation was limited due to the site’s historical significance (the park was established by Napoleon Bonaparte), and all major foliage was to remain in place. While the constraints resulted in a perfectly Canadian building – unassuming, with trees growing through the structure – the reviews were mixed. Over the years, many exhibitors and visitors complained both about the size and the quirky, Nautilus-shell shape, which incorporates a glass-enclosed tree and an abundance of windows, as well as an inner courtyard. Although it may not be an ideal gallery space, hints of the architect’s admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright can be detected in the classic modernist building, constructed primarily of brick, wood and glass, with steel beams defining the steeply pitched roof. For six decades it has been showing Canada’s most celebrated artists and, since 1980, architects.

Interior view of Canada Pavilion in Venice, showing work by James Wilson Morrice, one of the four artists representing Canada, 1958. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.


Designed in 1956 by Enrico Peressutti of Milanese firm BBPR (Banfi, Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Peressutti, Rogers), with a minimal budget (today, equivalent to approximately $210,000), the Pavilion was in dire need of restoration. The $3-million restoration project, funded by the Distinguished Patron of the  National Gallery of Canada, Reesa Greenberg, is being unveiled during the XVI Architecture Biennale. Initiated in 2014, this complex undertaking has been carried out by architect Alberico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, son of one of the original architects and heir to the BBPR studio, who worked in close cooperation with representatives of the Venice Biennale, the Soprintendenza and local architect Troels Bruun of M+B Studio. In preparation for the opening, the architecture team, the Canadian landscape team and the exhibition team were all still on-site in Venice when we spoke with them about the project.

Canada Pavilion restoration, Spring 2017, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: Francesco Barasciutti


Along with updating the Pavilion’s interior and exterior, Barbiano di Belgiojoso’s improvements include upgraded mechanical and ventilation systems, adjustable LED track lighting and an all-new, hardwood and steel deck behind the building; previously, the area was undeveloped and barely used, although it overlooks the lagoon. Bryce Gauthier, of Vancouver’s Enns Gauthier Landscape Architects, explains that the deck project was particularly challenging: It was constructed low, to stay out of view from the waterway paths, and the zigzag outline had to accommodate the existing landscape – but the deck footings couldn’t be in-ground, due to the site’s archaeological significance. With the assistance of legendary landscape architect and Order of Canada recipient Cornelia Hahn Oberlander – who, despite being in her mid-90s, works as a mentor/consultant for Enns Gauthier – the landscape renewal project expanded to include other pathways and gardens throughout the Giardini. “It’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with,” Gauthier admits.

Canada Pavilion, interior view of newly restored pavilion, 2018, Giardini di Castello, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. Photo: Andrea Pertoldeo

Inside, the renovation team, including exhibition designer Gordon Filewych, was tasked with replacing or retrofitting windows and portions of the roof, along with many other surfaces. Due to decades of tree growth – which Gauthier points out is a variety nicknamed by Italians as “the stone-breaking tree” – much of the structure had shifted. In the restoration process, Filewych discovered unexpected craftsmanship and complicated details in what he calls “the unique geometries” of the architecture; for example, what appears to be an angular wood roof is actually curved. “The original fabricators were people who made airplanes,” he explains, “so the shapes are extremely dynamic, with huge curves.”

Canada Pavilion, view of newly restored pavilion, 2018, Giardini di Castello, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. Photo: Andrea Pertoldeo


During the Architecture Biennale, the refreshed Pavilion is showcasing its 60-year history with a multimedia exhibition titled Canada Builds/Rebuilds a Pavilion in Venice, including archival photos, video footage, drawings and documents curated by Réjean Legault, associate professor at the École de design of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). A large-screen slideshow of almost 100 images since the building’s earliest days illustrates the many ways exhibitors used the space, which has moveable dividers but still provides a challenging gallery setting. “Many artists said they didn’t like working with the structure, but then what they created worked beautifully within the space,” says Legault. His research for the exhibition spanned hundreds of hours, from sorting through images to locating documents, many of which were difficult to find. In addition to the slideshow, exhibition panels and vitrines display a wide selection of images and documents, while an audio installation and two additional video screens feature interviews with the renewal team and glimpses of the then-newly built Canada Pavilion in the documentary, City Out of Time (National Film Board of Canada, 1959).

Canada Pavilion, view of newly restored pavilion, 2018, Giardini di Castello, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. Photo: Andrea Pertoldeo

Among 30 international pavilions, and nestled between two much larger buildings (the German and British pavilions), this is Canada’s only international arts building; it has been instrumental in launching Canadian talent onto the world stage. As part of a tradition that dates back to the first Venice Biennale in 1895, the Canada Pavilion also plays a pivotal role in the world’s oldest international arts exhibition. By exception this year, the official Canadian representation to the Architecture Biennale, Unceded: Voices of the Land, an Indigenous collaborative led by architect Douglas Cardinal with co-curators Gerald McMaster and David Fortin, is presented in the Arsenale di Venezia. The Canada Pavilion is sharing a compelling vision of our country, through the story of one building’s lifetime.

Canada Rebuilds/Builds a Pavilion in Venice, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, is installed in the newly restored Canada Pavilion during the 16th Biennale Architettura 2018, from May 26 to November 25, 2018. Canada’s official representation, Unceded: Voices of the Land, an immersive and breathtaking installation that celebrates the work of 18 Indigenous architects and designers from Turtle Island (Canada and USA), is on view in the Arsenale di Venezia. View also the series of short films created in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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