People wearing the huge sculptural head of a unicorn has become one of the most surreal images to be seen at this year’s  15th Venice Architectural Biennale.

Part of the Prospect North exhibition at the Scottish Pavilion, which is jointly produced by Lateral North, Dualchas Architects and Soluis, a design-visualisation studio from Glasgow, the heads of the unicorn, moose and polar bear allows you to enter an immersive virtual reality world of the Highlands past, present and future.

But apart from a bit of fun, Neil Stephen of Dualchas Architects says there is a serious side to it too.

“In this element we look at how the communities in the Highlands were destroyed, along with much of its Gaelic culture. We then look at how contemporary architecture is trying to connect with the past, but finding that it is largely a privilege of the wealthy as the young still leave, pushed out by high land values. We then imagine a different future where economic opportunities to the north can repopulate the Highlands.”

The display also includes the craftsmanship of a 3 dimensional timber map of Scotland and the arctic with spectacular 3-D visualisations and films which are triggered when viewing the map through mobile phones and tablets. But as Graham Hogg of Lateral North explained, the technology was there to help viewers engage with the issues.

“The exhibition looks at how communities in Scotland are working with architects to try and create a secure future, but that often they are battling against the odds. They are struggling against the gravitational pull of the south and the cities, which draws away the young and their energy. It then requires the heroic efforts of individuals to try and keep these communities alive.

“We are asking why should this be and how do we change it? We have therefore turned the map 180 degrees and looked to the north, to the Nordic countries and to the arctic, where there are potentially great opportunities for Scotland. We are then “the south” to our northern neighbours, and are in a great strategic position, particularly if new shipping routes open up through the North West Passage”.

The exhibition highlights that much of Scotland is under-populated but how an industrialisation of the north through bold renewable initiatives, high-speed connectivity and rethinking trade routes could transform outcomes. It suggests that the depopulation of the Highlands was not inevitable, but continued cultural and economic decline is the future unless we decide to effect a change.

This idea is complemented by a book which accompanies the exhibition. The book commissioned writers from across the country to tell stories and poems about Scotland when the map is turned and the compass realigned. And according to Fergus Bruce of Soluis, this contrast of traditional craft and high-end technology was important for the curators.

“The mixture of technology and sculpture has not previously been seen at the Biennale, and offered Soluis the chance to push boundaries in using a complex, unique piece of art as a trigger for augmented reality. These technologies are currently disrupting and invading architecture and design, so the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.

“But there will always be a place for the hand crafted and the beautiful – and we hope that both the sculpture and the beautiful writing reminds us that there are many ways of being creative, and making the world a better place.”

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