Arctic Architecture, Svalbard

The story of Arctic Architecture
Wes Milholen: The Arctic Architecture project started in 2012, when I participated in a residency program that involves sailing along the northwestern coast of Svalbard. Most of Svalbard is wilderness, but I had seen photos of the small settlements there and I was interested in experiencing them for myself. I have a background in both photography and architecture, and I wanted to somehow bring these two interests together in a meaningful way. Eventually, I settled on a concept for a book that will combine documentary photography with theoretical design projects that raise specific questions about development in the Arctic.

I am fascinated by places where the scale of human ambition is overwhelmed by the landscape. In Svalbard, the landscape is so powerful, and the settlements so small, that the settlements could almost disappear without a trace. Their continued survival is like a tiny light in a vast darkness. During the winter, when there are several months without sunlight, this is true in a literal sense. In some ways this seems like a metaphor for our survival on a planet that is suspended in the black coldness of space. I felt that working on a project about Svalbard would help me answer certain existential questions about the function of architecture, and guide some of the choices that I make in my own design practice.

'In some ways this seems like a metaphor for our survival on a planet that is suspended in the black coldness of space.'

Influences on Svalbard
Unlike some areas above the Arctic Circle, Svalbard has no indigenous human population, so its architecture has been framed by the particular cultural lens of the people who have settled there. This is most evident in the architectural detailing of certain buildings, along with the overall spatial organization of each of the settlements. For example, in the Russian settlement of Pyramiden, which is now abandoned, the planning and architecture clearly reflects a Soviet influence. There is a monumental public square surrounded by monolithic low-rise residential buildings, just as you might find in mainland Russia. In Barentsburg, an active Russian settlement on Spitsbergen, you can find similar references to Soviet culture. Contrast this to the town of Longyearbyen, which is administered by Norway - Scandinavian social ideals have shaped the built environment. There is a feeling of things being more open, but also being more private, less communal. Also, village of Ny-Ålesund is reminiscent of Norwegian vernacular architecture, with many wooden buildings that are painted in bright colours. But what all of the settlements in Svalbard have in common is that they were founded for the purpose of mining coal. Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund have evolved away from that purpose, but there is still a rough and austere quality to the older buildings, because they were constructed for purely functional reasons.

Apart from cultural influences, the climate and geographic isolation of Svalbard strongly influence the way that things are designed and built. Most buildings are raised above the earth to prevent the freeze/thaw cycle of the permafrost from compromising their structural integrity. Prefabrication is often used as well. You see the same building typology repeated, especially in the residential areas of Longyearbyen. There are industrial and residential buildings in Barentsburg and Pyramiden that are identical. This is a reminder of the fact that everything has to be brought in from the mainland. This is reflected in the choice of building materials as well, even on buildings that are not prefabricated.


Unique challenges
The primary challenge is that Svalbard is somewhat hostile to human habitation. Many of the things that people take for granted in temperate climates – fertile soil that can support agriculture, established transportation and communication networks, and constant availability of sunlight – are missing in Svalbard. And this is true for other locations in the High Arctic as well.

On a certain level, it is inherently unsustainable to inhabit such places. Without constant support from the mainland, Svalbard would quickly become inhospitable. But the Arctic is becoming a focal point for many nations and a new wave of development is already moving forward. The goal of my work is to be proactive about considering what the future might bring, to look ahead and consider what will happen when climatic and geopolitical factors lead to population growth in places like Svalbard.


Future plans
Currently, I am planning a return trip to Svalbard for the summer of 2014. I need to spend more time documenting specific buildings, identifying sites for intervention, and exploring places that I have not yet seen. Once this documentation phase is complete, I will continue work on the design projects that are intended for each of the settlements, and start to compile all of this material into a book format.

Since I started to share photos from the residency on my website, I have been contacted by architects from around the world – mostly in Scandinavia – who are interested in contributing. So in the end I think the book will be more of a collaborative effort, in terms of the theoretical design projects. I am also planning to present my work this spring, at the ARTEK conference in Sisimiut, Greenland, which will hopefully lead to further collaborations.

Eventually, I would like to do field studies in other Arctic locations, and to create a series of books that apply the same design research approach to other places. Architecture is just one aspect of human settlement in the Arctic, but it is something that directly reflects our attitudes about the landscape and our sense of place within the natural environment. That is why I think it deserves further study within the wider political, economic, and ecological contexts of our continued push into the Arctic.

Words: Sharman Tanny
Wes Milholen photographed by: Stephen Hilyard
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