As visitors to the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale make their way through the broad, leafy pathways of the event’s main exhibition space, the Giardini di Castello, they will quickly notice that one of the national pavilions is wrapped almost completely in green fabric.
The Canadian Pavilion, an angular glass, steel and brick structure designed in 1958 by the Milanese firm BBPR, will become in effect a giant green screen, transformed, via a smartphone app, into a shifting array of Canadian buildings, including the architect Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Hatley Castle in Victoria, British Columbia.
This attention-grabbing installation is part of “Impostor Cities,” the country’s contribution to the biennale, commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts. The exhibition explores how Canadian cities frequently double as other metropolises in movies and television shows, and what that means about (among other things) film, architecture, cities, national identity and how our perception of the built world is often based on artifice.
Inside the pavilion, the organizers will present clips from more than 3,000 films and TV shows shot in Canada, juxtaposed with their real sites (and a mix of sounds). (Another version of this production will be available online.)
The compilation, which includes John Andrews’s Brutalist-style Science and Humanities Building at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, standing in for the F.B.I. Academy in Quantico, Va., drives home the point that while the country is one of the most filmed locations in the world, few of those productions actually depict it as Canada.
(According to the British financial services website GoCompare, the country is the third most filmed country in the world, after the United States and Britain, but according to most research it doesn’t even rank in the top 10 for its number of film productions.)
“Everyone’s favorite bookstore has been used as a film set somewhere else,” said the exhibition curator, David Theodore, an associate professor at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture at McGill University as well as an architectural journalist.
“Many of us have even watched a movie and said, ‘Hey that’s Vancouver; what’s it doing playing North Korea?’” (He was referring to “The Interview,” which made Mr. Erickson’s Robson Square in Vancouver the setting for Kim Jong-un’s headquarters in Pyongyang.)
There are countless examples of this Canadian urban stunt doubling, often pieced together via tight shots and computer graphics. Toronto plays Tokyo in “Pacific Rim,” Chicago in the movie “Chicago,” Baltimore in “Hairspray” and Boston in much of “Good Will Hunting.”
Vancouver plays New York in the Jackie Chan movie “Rumble in the Bronx” (leading to an infamous oversight, in which the city has mountains lurking behind it), and it plays Seattle, Budapest and Mumbai in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” Montreal has played Paris in “Catch Me if You Can”; Washington, D.C., in “White House Down”; and Brooklyn in the movie “Brooklyn.”
Particularly popular filming locations include the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, a beloved Art Deco complex in Toronto that has played sinister locations in movies like “Undercover Brother” (portraying The Man’s headquarters) and “In the Mouth of Madness” (a mental hospital). The University of Toronto has played Harvard, M.I.T. and Princeton, among many other schools.
The reasons for Canada’s prime status as a film “impostor” are many, Mr. Theodore said: tax breaks, lower costs, diverse landscapes, high-quality shooting and editing facilities, friendliness and a general unfamiliarity with Canada among international movie audiences, allowing it to easily stand in without being recognized.
Another factor, according to the exhibition’s designer, Thomas Balaban, an architect and professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Montreal, is that Canada’s cities are more generic than those in many countries, particularly those in the United States, which Canada plays most often.
“Everything goes through a design review board,” said Mr. Balaban, whose architecture firm, TBA, is spearheading the exhibition’s design as well. “There’s this feeling that the cities are designed by committee.”
This rather conservative reality, he noted, can be effective at keeping out the worst projects, but it also limits the most noticeable.
In a recent article for Architect magazine, the critic Witold Rybczynski wrote that despite a few radical midcentury exceptions from architects like Erickson, Andrews and Moshe Safdie, “Canadian architects have generally toed the Modernist line, preferring to leave radical experimentation to others.”
Fair or not, Canadian architecture’s perceived timidity, and lack of recognition globally, make the title “impostor” particularly evocative; poking at longstanding cultural sore spots like a nebulous national identity, and a sense of being overlooked in favor of the so-called “elephant to the south,” the United States.
“It’s hard to build an identity when you’re constantly playing the role of more dominant cultures that are not your own” Mr. Balaban said. “You do scratch your head and question what your own role is.”
Yet many people, he added, respond to the country’s stand-in work with pride, or at least a sense of detached humor. Mr. Balaban enjoys treating films like a game, trying to spot the Canadian sites.
Their exhibition, Mr. Balaban and Mr. Theodore agree, is not intended to answer whether the “impostor” phenomenon is good or bad. But they hope it will raise questions about the way architecture is experienced in the digital age, how architectural identities are formed, and what real and fake mean anymore.
“Architects obsess about plans, and they should,” Mr. Theodore said. “But most people don’t see the plans. They see an aerial view in a movie.”
Mr. Balaban added, “Maybe the four-inch thickness of the facades of our cities is more important than we think.”
Because of the pandemic, the Canadian team cannot be on site as the project is built inside the Giardini. They have had to direct local workers via Zoom and FaceTime: an awkward process, and a sign of our remote, computerized times.
“It’s like a Netflix sci-fi series where the characters end up doubting what’s physical and what’s virtual,” Mr. Theodore said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to show up in Venice and find out that it had all been faked.”
Inspired by this new reality, the team plans to push much harder on that thread than they initially planned.
To maintain surprise, they wouldn’t elaborate, but let’s just say don’t believe that everything you see in the exhibit is real, whether it’s at the pavilion or online.
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