Exhibit explores Nunavut’s complex architectural past, present and future

The Museum of Vancouver’s upcoming exhibit, Arctic Adaptations, on display from Oct. 8 to Dec. 13, explores the history and socio-cultural effects of modernization on the Inuit people in Nunavut through the medium of modern architecture. The exhibit initially opened in 2014 at the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition to mark the 15th anniversary of the creation of Canada’s youngest and largest territory.

According to Lola Sheppard, co-founder of Lateral Office and the co-curator of the exhibit, architecture plays an important part in the cultural modernization and transformation of the Inuit people in Nunavut, historically with mixed to negative results.

“The effect of modernity on Nunavut has been fraught. There’s been an imposition from [southern Canada] of language, education, food, buildings, of just about everything. In relation to architecture, it was certainly a tool of colonization,” says Sheppard.

A difficult transformation

Artist Lew Philip with his soapstone carving of St. Jude’s Cathedral (Iqaluit), 2014. |

Artist Lew Philip with his soapstone carving of St. Jude’s Cathedral (Iqaluit), 2014. |

Since time immemorial, the Inuit peoples of northern Canada have lived a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and migrating across the Arctic region, living in unique portable camps called
ilagiit nunagivaktangat. As traders, missionaries and explorers began visiting the Arctic, the Inuit were often relocated to permanent settlements in order for the government to better provide social services.

However, this rapid acculturation drastically affected the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people, resulting in new social problems, such as unemployment and familial dysfunction.

“Some of the intentions were perhaps good, but how it was done was certainly painful. The initial housing types that were sent up were pretty abysmal both in its construction and size,” says Sheppard. “I think for many Nunavummiuts, architecture is not seen as a tool of empowerment by any means.”

Sheppard, an architect by training, wanted to see how architecture could play a positive social role in Nunavut. Instead of importing architecture from the Canadian south without regard to the culture, environment and lifestyle of the people living there, she and her team wanted to examine how architecture could instead be a tool for cultural empowerment and serve as a lever for social networks.

“We’ve called it Arctic Adaptations because it’s this idea of a culture that’s constantly adapting,” Sheppard says. “Can architecture be as intelligent, responsive and adaptive as the people and the culture there?”

Nunavut’s past, present and possible future

Igloolik Research Centre soapstone carving by Jaco Ishulutaq,2014. | Photos courtesy of the Lateral Office

Igloolik Research Centre soapstone carving by Jaco Ishulutaq,2014. | Photos courtesy of the Lateral Office

The exhibit is a result of working on these questions since 2008. The exhibit is divided into three major sections: the architectural past, the urbanizing present and the projective futures of a transforming Nunavut.

The architectural past features soapstone carvings from Inuit artists showcasing significant buildings in Nunavut from the past hundred years, such as the Igloolik Research Centre and the St. Jude Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital.

“Traditionally, Inuit carvings document or describe animals, events and hunts, and almost never describe buildings. So for many of these artists, describing a building representationally was new in terms of documenting something contemporary,” says Sheppard.

The urbanizing present features 25 topographical models of all 25 Nunavut communities, where the coast and its buildings are depicted. This objective model is supplemented with “community self-portraits”: more subjective readings of community that help describe the reality on the ground, depicting people as well as buildings and the surrounding landscape.

The projective future examines ways architecture can be adapted to serve the Nunavut community in terms of arts, education, health, recreation and housing, documented on three scales: the territorial, community and architectural level. This section of the exhibit was designed by architecture students from five Canadian universities, who visited Nunavut to experience the culture and environment first-hand to help inform their project designs.

“We might learn from traditional sentiments and certain building materials, and without being nostalgic, this knowledge can crossbreed with contemporary technologies or contemporary ways of making space to form something new,” says Sheppard.

Shining a spotlight on the youngest territory

Sheppard hopes that this exhibit, which is currently on a tour around Canada, opens up questions, or, at the very least, brings recognition of the territory, its complexities and its rich cultural history.

“I think people are curious to understand,” says Sheppard. “At Biennale, we had questions like, ‘why are they there, why are they nomadic, why do they live in Arctic communities, why do they stay in the North.’ After knowing the context, it’s like asking a Frenchman, why do you stay in France? Because it’s home.”

For more information please visit www.museumofvancouver.ca.