Interview by: Linsen Chai
The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal houses one of the largest collections of books and artifacts related to the built environment. The institution reopened briefly in September for its new exhibition, The Things Around Us: 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework, before closing again due to the coronavirus pandemic. For two weeks, those familiar with the grey limestone building on Baile Park found their beloved museum unchanged, but beneath the surface, director Giovanna Borasi has been expansively rethinking the institution and its future.
In March 2020, in an open letter titled “Listening Is Not Enough,” Borasi urged the institution to pause for an introspective moment in order to re-examine and change its practices in light of pervasive social inequities. This cri de coeur aligns with the ideas she espoused in last year’s The Museum Is Not Enough, an aptly-named CCA publication in which a personified museum speaks to its capacities, its role, and its future. Both are meant to be read as self-critiques, manifestos of sorts, through which Borasi sets the tone of her directorship and showcases the challenges she and the institution continue to confront.
Over the last fifteen years, Borasi has incessantly pushed the boundaries of urbanism and architecture, spearheading provocative exhibitions such as Environment: Approaches for Tomorrow: Gilles Clement/Philippe Rahm (2006), Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture (2011), and The Other Architect/Another Way of Building Architecture (2016). Her attention to diverse voices and practices along with her focus on the social and environmental impacts of architecture have shaped her strong institutional stance. In this conversation, we explore Borasi’s career trajectory, from her formative years as editor of Lotus International to the helm of an institution undergoing tremendous change.
Tell us about your beginnings. How did you transition from architectural school to your current role as director and curator at the CCA?
I chose to study architecture at Politecnico di Milano because the curriculum touched upon everything from history to economics; that way, even if you decided not to become an architect, you would have a solid base. I was drawn to architecture because it is a very precise discipline while needing to be responsive to daily life and societal change. I like the struggle between precision—building with a larger purpose and planning for the long-term—and, at the same time, this need for improvisation in being constantly challenged by life in and of itself.
During my final thesis year, one of my advisors, who was the editor in chief of Lotus International, asked me to join the editorial team. The one-year offer to work at an architectural publication seemed like a good experience before entering the field, so I accepted—little did I know that it would become eight years! I always thought I would get back into practice, but at the same time, I had witnessed my friends working crazy hours at low or unpaid positions. Besides, at that point I really had no idea how to get back into design as technology and software changed at such a fast pace in the 1990s.
How did your work as an editor at Lotus help you to pivot into curating?
At Lotus, I enjoyed strategizing on the theme of every issue, inviting the right people to contribute, figuring out which essays to use and what photography to accompany them. My experience there helped me ease into curation because editors have a similar approach: developing strong ideas that you thread and materialize into something cohesive. Curation connected back to my architectural education as it brought this spatial component of conceptualizing how people interact with content. I would say it was a serendipitous transition from my architectural education to curation, but it was also partly due to working with Mirko Zardini, whom I met at the office there.
I first joined the curatorial team of a show curated by Mirko in 2003 for the Triennale di Milano called Asfalto: Il carattere della città. Asphalt did not seem like a thrilling topic for an exhibition, but it reveals our relationship to hygiene and urbanity—and ultimately it offered me a great learning opportunity. A portion of the research material came from the CCA, which is how we ended up adapting it to be shown in Montreal in 2005 with a broader scope as Sense of the City. Mirko became director in 2005; I joined as Curator for Contemporary Architecture that same year and have been here ever since!
Installation view: The Other Architect, an exhibition at the CCA, curated by Giovanna Borasi, 2015-2016.
What are some takeaways from your fifteen years at the CCA? How have you and the institution evolved?
What I really enjoy about the CCA is that it is an institution at the right scale. It is big enough to take on large projects while at the same time small enough to quickly respond to something current. I really love its complexity and its agility, but from the beginning I knew it would be fundamental for it to become thematically driven. This way, a constant dialogue could exist between the institution, the public, and the curator.
As a director, you need to confront the institution’s history, challenging it to ensure it survives and thrives. The difficulty is to establish something perennial because your time is limited. At this moment, I really enjoy being able to think about designing or curating the institution itself. Whether at the level of an exhibition or that of an institution, we need to consider how, what, and to whom we are speaking. What tone should we adopt? Is it friendly? Top-down? What is the voice of the Canadian Centre for Architecture?
To that matter, you recently launched an annual magazine called The Museum Is Not Enough, which is written from the museum’s point of view and establishes a series of ambitions. What are the goals behind this publication? Should it be read as the CCA attempting to rethink its role, its mission, and its future?
I think you read it correctly. It is important for an institution to evolve, which requires it to be unpretentious and self-critical. It is not an easy task to be open and ready to undo or change certain things. The Museum is Not Enough replaces the yearly report museums usually write, which is self-congratulatory and really dry. Instead of stating what we collected and showed, we opted to use this opportunity for introspection.
The idea of the museum speaking in the first person came from a plaque I saw on a building during a recent trip. I don’t know if it was due to a translation mistake, but basically it was talking to you: “I was built like this, my owner hated me so this part got cut, I was sold…”. I liked the idea of personifying the institution, so we adopted that for the publication. By doing so, we undo the typical description of the CCA, which everybody knows by heart at this point (“The CCA was founded in 1979 by Phyllis Lambert …”); if you start by stating, “I call myself a centre,” then you have to ask yourself why. It became a reflective work revealing not only what we do but also why we do it, as well as what we are not sure about, leaving these questions open.
We are now working on the second volume and obviously the questions are going to be different. The idea is that they start from us but then involve other institutions and voices. I want to do this even more, so it becomes a sincere discussion questioning the role of cultural institutions—especially considering the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, both of which have exposed deep-seated societal inequities. I think we should play a different and leading role in this.
The Museum Is Not Enough. conceived as the first volume of an annual publication in which the CCA explores the urgent questions defining its curatorial activities. Co-published with Sternberg Press in 2019. © CCA
Similarly, your digital event, The Self Is Not Enough, features discussions around themes of social solidarity and distancing. It also introduces the institutions’ short documentary film When We Live Alone, the second in a new three-part series centered on the idea of home. Could you tell us more about the role of digital media in the CCA’s communications and outreach strategies?
The CCA wants to play an active role in Montreal and Canada, but also globally. To reach other audiences, we need to shift to the digital realm and its possibilities. We have seen during COVID-19 that the physical doesn’t actually matter; the important thing is to address the right topic, to speak to the right people, and to develop the right ways of reaching them. Whereas before we were doing something physically and then creating a digital alter ego, now I’m thinking more in terms of various outputs for different strategies.
From what I’ve observed online, editing has become fundamental. Sure, Zoom, Instagram, and Facebook Live are convenient and easy to join, but they are also lengthy and unedited. I like the idea that things can be curated digitally. As a curator, you need to choose the appropriate output—whether that is a film, a public conversation, an exhibition, or a Zoom marathon. We should be experimenting with the whole gradient of communication methods to engage with an audience. That is what we did with The Self Is Not Enough, which includes pre-recorded parts with a live Q&A, instead of an endless talk. On the one hand, this was us experimenting with the digital; on the other, it is us trying to understand how we can be more accessible. Then again, we acknowledge the huge inequalities in terms of digital access, so we need to evaluate carefully how we reach out. We should not only be a North American institution that collects and works with a certain idea of architecture, but rather an institution that works on implementing structural change.
Giovanna Borasi in conversation with Mellon Researchers in the CCA`s study room, a part of the CCA’s Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture, a collaborative and multi-disciplinary research project on architecture’s complex developments in sub-Saharan Africa after independence. This research initiative is funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CCA 2019. © CCA
How do you conceive the CCA’s role in light of your statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of Montreal, wider academic circles, and most importantly, the general public? Can you share some of your long-term action plans, tools, and strategies to implement resilient change within the museum?
Actions we undertake need to become structural and institutionalized in order for them not to be undone by the next director or curator who comes along. Even if we establish a program that targets a specific audience or issue, if it is contingent on funding or the support of certain people, then it is at risk of being discontinued. There is a lot of pressure right now for institutions to give an immediate and visible response, but we need to consider incremental actions to implement change in a more thoughtful and planned manner.
I can tell you that the CCA is committed to the complicated task of rethinking itself and its practices. Since we started collecting later than other institutions, we are bound to be more critical and radical about how and what we collect. For example, with the Centring Africa program—which seeks to build a different architectural history of the continent—we are facing a series of very delicate issues when working with local scholars. Some want us to help them preserve their archive, though that can be perceived as another form of resource extraction. Ultimately, are these stories ours to tell? Whichever strategy we put in place, it should be conceived as a dialogue where different voices and perspectives are empowered.
We are also committed to creating spaces and resources in our collection for the non-White, non-Western voices, which have been traditionally underrepresented or cast aside in our field. In the last ten years, we collected the archives of Aditya Prakash and the practice led by Amancio Williams, along with records of projects by Shoei Yoh. In the coming years we will strengthen this line of acquisition. Much of what we do at the CCA is to try to deconstruct the things that seem “obvious” or “normal,” and the nature of our collection relies on a set of assumptions that we similarly have to work at breaking apart.
Along those lines, we are interested in exploring issues and demands raised by the architectural community related to new historical perspectives and new readings. It’s important to consider the “other” in everything we do, to understand how to approach people as an institution and vice versa. We really need to take this time to reflect on how to communicate with each other, as change must come from both the individual entering the institution and the institution itself. I would invite this new generation of multifaceted museum workers to challenge us and work with us because the museum, by itself, is not enough.
About the author:
Linsen Chai holds a BSc in Architecture from McGill University and a Master of Architecture from Cornell University. His research interests lie at the intersection of archiving, cultural heritage, and oral narratives shaped by his experience in exhibition design at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Storefront for Art and Architecture.