The Territory of the Virtually Unknown*

Svalbard. Photo by Reuben Wu

“Any environmental design task is characterized by an astounding amount of unavailable or indeterminate information.”
—Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine

The North and South Poles are somehow a terra incognita for architects. The harsh conditions of this environments are related more with the power of ideas than materiality, while we are still speculating about how to conquer this territory of the virtually unknown, as Peter Cook pointed on MAP 001 Antartica. These territories, the Artic and the Antartic, has been inspiration for artists, poets, musicians and architects, who have been working to discover the secrets hidden behind the masses of ice that shape these lands.

With all this facts in mind, it is interesting to revisit some history about built projects in this areas, such as the Halley VI Antartic Research Station or the Princess Elisabeth Station as examples to understand what have been done until now and to speculate on what can be done in the future. We have written before about the fascination of extreme environments and it seems that a good place to start researching about the environmental conditions of this kind of places is Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic, which constitutes the northernmost part of Norway. Svalbard is also known because of the Doomsday Vault, an emergency genebank located in the mountains above Longyearbyen or for the SOUSY Svalbard Radar, a so-called “mesosphere-stratosphere-troposphere”, a system to determine atmospheric parameters such as winds and turbulence from a few km altitude to over 100km and at a wide variety of spatial and temporal resolutions.

SOUSY Svalbard Radar in Svalbard. Photo by Reuben Wu

Doomsday Vault in Svalbard. Photo by Reuben Wu

Paul D. Miller wrote on the Book of Ice:

“Looking back over the last several centuries, an intense amount of energy has been expended all over the world exploring and unraveling the meaning of humanity’s condition on the planet. Much of this energy has been spent in perverse and self-defeating ways. Our vision of modern life is tinged by events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which makes former disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident or the 1986 release of radioactive steam in Chernobyl seem quaint and self-contained. More than ever, we are interconnected, and interdependent. In the future, regardless of any human action, the planet will be here—we, as a species, might not.”

This idea of life disappearing from the planet is part of the motivation of creating bank seeds. MAP Architects has designed the South Pole Universal Seed Archive with the aim to place the archive at the geographic South Pole and to take advantage of the already existing conditions. Mostly all of the seed archives built until now are housed in concrete bunkers, to avoid any kind of damage, but the main fact of this project is that is a seed archive without “architecture”. The proposal is that the landscape itself becomes the archive with the seeds saved in aluminium canisters buried five metres in the ice [not to be ground but stored]. One of the most interesting facts emerges with the use of geolocation technologies: “With each canister marked by a flag and a radio beacon, the archive becomes a map, a GPS landscape, charting the collection of seeds distributed radially and following the genetic relationship between the archived species.” This way, topography becomes alive with information.

South Pole Universal Seed Archive by MAP Architects

Going further we can remark the importance of transdiciplinarity in this field. To speculate and propose projects for such a difficult environment, there is a real need for architects to work side by side with scientist, biologist, physicist and other disciplines to discover new approaches to this frozen terrain that has long been Earth’s most mysterious region, in words of Brian Greene.

We can even talk about new species in architecture wich are based in several biological formations. Marta Malé-Alemany and Luis Fraguada state on the book Antartica. Time of Change that natural structures attract architects because their physical characteristics are the result of a system that has been subjected to constantly variable conditions. In that sense, it’s easy to understand why so many architects and engineers have focused their attention on diatoms, a major group of algae that are encased within a unique cell wall made of silica [hydrated silicon dioxide] called a frustule. Thus, the diatom morphology is a great source of inspiration in developing structural strategies for the construction of complex forms.

With the emergence of digital manufacturing and 3D printing processes, research projects in the fields of architecture and design are now capable to produce models and prototypes to test in a very accurate way a wide frame of new materials and structures. Following these ideas, the Istitute of Advanced Architecture has produced for the exhibition “Antartica. Time of Change” an interesting set of spheres based on the geometric analysis of diatoms, creating surfaces that could adopt a continuous, unbroken skeleton.

Work by the University of Hong Kong. Exhibited at the Beyond Media Festival

24 Spheres. IAAC participation at Antartica. Time of Change.

If we agree with Mireya Masó when she states that “Time becomes matter in the uninterrupted flow of sun and fog.”, it is possible to even go further on the explorations of this extreme landscape and use the same inspiration in some other places and contexts, as Luis Callejas and Lukas Pauer did when they directed the workshop “What Olmsted did not know: On snow storms“, where natural phenomena are the raw materials used to generate a projected landscape. The project Moku-Moku by Jason Brain, Sang Cho, Takuya Iwamura and Phoebe White is based on the idea of organize in a scientific way the different kinds of clouds, as they point “There are no kingdoms, phylums, orders or classes in the cloud-world, but there are families, genera, species and even subspecies.” In addition to enumerating the endemic behaviors of the three observed cloud species, the team explored ideas of chemical cloud seeding. By adding as little as 0.1 micrograms per liter of water of various compounds [USPHS safe], the visual qualities of the clouds can be drastically affected.

On this project, White, Iwamura, White and Cho also used balloons, not only for their connotation with weather patterns in our modern age, but also for the timeless wistfulness that they convey to everyone. The project is also a representation of how clouds imply landforms of interest beneath them, and how environmental conditions [such as wind force] can be used as inherent part of the proposal, as the way that wind deformation transforms the installation constantly.

Moku-Moku by Jason Brain, Sang Cho, Takuya Iwamura and Phoebe White.

Moku-Moku by Jason Brain, Sang Cho, Takuya Iwamura and Phoebe White.

In times when the horizon of unknown territories is moving faster than ever, instead of the old human desire of conquer nature maybe we should decide to abandon this new colonialism and try to remember that “space, once conquered, loses interest in the eyes both of the explorer and of a public that is avid for new feats.”, as Josep Perelló wrote. Or on the opposite, we should simply be humble enough to remember that nature has its own rules that are impossible to replicate in a perfect way.

We want to end with Matteo Pasquinelli words:

“Schematically, the question is how to apply the forms of the bios to the techne? And conversely, how to apply the forms of the techne to the bios? […] Instead of forcing biomimesis, such an investigation should track biomorphism, that is, the stratification and transmission of energy surplus through frictions, asymmetries and condensations.”

The Territory of the Virtually Unknown*. Name taken of Peter Cook’s introduction to MAP 01: Antartica

Recommended readings:
[1] Antartica. Time of Change. Josep Perelló, Vicenc Altaió, Alicia Chillida. Actar, 2011.
[2] The Book of Ice. Paul D. Miller. Subliminal Kid Inc, 2011.
[3] Four Regimes of Entropy: For an Ecology of Genetics and Biomorphic Media Theory. Matteo Pasquinelli. Fibreculture #17: Unnatural ecologies, special issues on media ecology. 2011.


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