The Fascination of Extreme Environments. The Inevitability of Disrupting Natural Ecology?


Above Zero by Olaf Otto Becker.

Extreme environments have always been fascinating. The mystery hidden behind their beauty has embed the contradiction of the human desire of conquering new spaces with the fear of dealing with unexpected phenomena. Architects like Luis Callejas, David Garcia Studio or Lateral Office have taken inspiration from this kind of places to develop some of their most interesting projects. We’re going to be focused today on extreme cold environments and try to find our own “findings on ice“.

To understand deeper this context, we can see the photographic work of Olaf Otto Becker and how he turns his attention to the interior of Greenland in the book Above Zero. Second only to Antarctica, Greenland has the most expansive continental ice sheet in the world. Becker’s spectacular portraits of this region are taken with a cumbersome and heavy large-format camera during physically strenuous, sometimes life-threatening tours among glacial crevasses and snowmelt flows.

His photographic studies reveal the overwhelming beauty of this ice-covered landscape while at the same time documenting the existential threat to it, for even here, in this completely uninhabited region, human influences have fatal consequences: dust and soot in the air form black, crusty deposits that, in conjunction with global warming, accelerate the melting of the ice sheets—with no doubt unavoidable catastrophic results.


Above Zero by Olaf Otto Becker

As Freddy Langer quotes on his essay Symphony of Ice:

“Landscape can never be conceived of independent of people. It is always sculpted nature, nature shaped and used, in some cases abused, but invariably subordinated. This definition now applies to wilderness pictures, too, which strictly speaking should be characterized by the complete absence of humans.”

The project is divided in different fragments of a map that enabled Becker to form a mental picture of the inland ice some 150 kilometers northeast of Ilulissat, even before he sets off the image that was a satellite picture provided by NASA. With a choice of rivers both large and small, he selected just a few with the intention of exploring them on foot. Georg Sichelschmidt and Becker reached the first of them after a ten-day trek inland from the coast. The journey was arduous since every day they had to negotiate with hundreds of meltwater streams, cracks, and crevasses in the glacier—each of them with ninety kilograms of gear loaded onto their pulkas.

The result is the project Above Zero:


Above Zero by Olaf Otto Becker


Above Zero by Olaf Otto Becker

The part we found more interesting is that about the Swiss Camp: An atmospheric research station which was built in 1990 and that has been run by Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA; Jay Zwally of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has collaborated with the research team in Colorado since 1995. NASA uses Swiss Camp to calibrate its satellite data (ICESat) by creating snow profiles near the measuring stations. Using a suite of measuring equipment for parameters such as temperature, wind direction, hours of sunshine, and melt volumes, Steffen and Zwally have collected a vast body of data on Greenland’s ice cap. Their readings, like the satellite data and climate models, provide pointers to the ice sheet’s past and future development. The inexorable meltdown regularly obliges the two scientists to anchor their measuring stations deeper and deeper in the ice cap, if only to prevent them falling over during the melt period.


Above Zero by Olaf Otto Becker

These kinds of images make us wonder if these are the new Instant City from which Archigram talked 40 years ago. Archigram’s Instant City was described as a mobile technological event that drifts into underdeveloped structures, with provisional structures (performance spaces) in tow. The whole endeavor is intended to eventually move on leaving behind advanced technology hook-ups. And that’s exactly what happens in these research camps: they are ephemeral but at the same time complex settlements, as they need some infrastructures such as working tentes, generators, depth radars for measurements and different kind of materials.

Already in 1958, Ralph Erskine’s “An Ecological Arctic Town” was based on his well-known premise “In the arctic, it is important to catch the sun and avoid the breeze; in the heat it is equally important to avoid the sun and catch the breeze”. We can read on A+U 414 [2005] “Interview with Ralph Erskine: Reflections on Six Decades of Design” that Erskine pointed:

When considering the problem of building in the north, to talk of an architecture of climate would be to tell only half the story. It is people in the climate, the cities and the landscape… that count. Ordinary people, not architects, people who are born in the north and know it and love it.

We can see the fascination and the challenge of designing in this extreme landscapes, that goes far behind of the current times.


Ralph Erskine’s New Town in the Arctic Wastes of Northern Canada. Source: Continuous Construction

In the same line, more than sixty years later, we can talk about David Garcia Studio’s project Iceberg Living Station. With the aim to provide shelter to the growing base stations inhabitants and the expected tourist to visit the site, they have designed a so-called “architecture”, holed out in a super large iceberg [about 2.5 square kilometre area], which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time. They describe the project on their web-site:

Caterpillar excavators, traditionally used in the Antarctic to move and clear snow, would cut out the spaces inside the iceberg. The geometric logic of the movement of these machines, now used to “design and cut” the spaces, create the curves of the interiors. Two access ramps [one for pedestrians, the other for vehicles] give access to the main areas […] A lecture/conference hall allows for cultural activities. Containers would transport food and reusable solar cells and energy equipment, and would be used to store waste and grey water residue, which can be shipped of regularly.

Avoiding the idea of transporting materials foreign to the continent, that is, the idea of using the landscape itself as a building material is more than remarkable, because it follows what Lebbeus Woods call “inevitable architecture“, embracing from the start the future decay of the project. This entropic-conscious thinking, considering the project as an active part of nature, moves away from traditional thinking that considers architecture inevitably disrupting the natural ecology.


Iceberg Living Station by David Garcia Studio


Iceberg Living Station by David Garcia Studio

Even technicians are convinced, and lots of architects amongst them, that soon or later science has the capacity to solve any crisis or any lack of energy and materials; it is only a myth since it is not possible to create energy nor matter infinitely, without degradation of the biosphere that provides the original resources. However it is possible to find attempts outlining practical solutions based on economics and technology that ring attention on an environmentalist ethic as an effective solution to what is a cultural problem.

In this context, it is interesting to remind that in the year 1971, Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen, a Romanian mathematician, statistician and economist, published his book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. In this book he glimpsed what then was called Bioeconomics, that is, considering the study of the dynamics of living resources into conventional economic models, until then, focused in partial spheres of complex human interactions. He also introduced into economics, the concept of entropy and used the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics to explain the relationship between energy, matter and economic process. The first law of thermodynamics refers to the conservation of energy and basically states that a thermodynamic system can store or hold energy and that this internal energy is conserved. The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the universal law of increasing entropy, stating that the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium and is used to explain the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.

When designing a building or a city, architects should notice about the relationship it has with the natural environment and how they interact, looking for the reconciliation between techniques and nature. What if this fascination about extreme environments were helpful to reach a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature?. Then we could paraphrase Lebbeus Woods: “Each architect must find their own, natural way.”

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Recommended readings:
[1] Artic Perspective Cahier Nº 1. Edited by Andreas Müller. Hatje Cantz, 2010.
[2] Findidngs on Ice. Edited by Hester Aardsee and Astrid van Baalen. Lars Müller, 2007.
[3] Architecture and Entropy by César Reyes Nájera. dpr-barcelona, 2009.
[4] Arctic Architecture: Svalbard. A project by Arctic Architecture. Many thanks to @TheDraftery for the link!

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