High Arctic, High Design: Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Ikaluktutiak, Nunavut

Modelled after an igloo, St. Jude’s Anglican Church, in Iqaluit, was rebuilt in a version of Ron Thom’s original design following a fire. Photo: Ansgar Walk

PROJECT Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut

ARCHITECTS EVOQ + NFOE in joint venture

Two signal constructions of the 1970s in Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) have cast long arctic shadows over the architecture of Nunavut. The Ron Thom-designed St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral (1972) has been a much-loved building for local residents and visitors alike—so much so that it was rebuilt in a variation on the original design after a 2005 fire.  The church takes the form of an igloo, with radial glulam beams exposed inside, rising to a single skylight at the apex. The Thom design updates a traditional Inuit building form, abstracting it somewhat without losing its emotional resonance, comparable to how Arthur Erickson employed Haida house forms in his UBC Museum of Anthropology a few years later.

The Gordon Robertson Education Centre in Iqaluit, by PGL Architects, exemplifies a technologically driven approach to arctic design. Photo courtesy estate of Guy Gérin-Lajoie

The contrasting tendency in Nunavut architecture is a more futurist one, embodied by the Gordon Robertson Education Centre (1971), designed by PGL Architects, led by Guy Gérin-Lajoie. The school uses pre-fabricated fiberglass panels—each one cast and insulated in a southern factory, then shipped and installed at off-vertical angles around a windmill-shaped plan. This panel-flanked school posits a new repertoire of high-tech forms for the north, complete with novel building plan geometries, the extensive prefabrication of building components, and even a questioning of the function and locations of windows.

The complex includes the main research facility, two triplexes for housing visiting researchers, and a maintenance building. Photo: Alex Fradkin

There are echoes of both these Nunavut traditions in the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, designed by EVOQ in joint venture with laboratory consultants NFOE, both of Montreal. With over 8,000 square metres constructed in a multi-building campus at a cost of $120 million, CHARS is the largest educational and research building in Canada’s Arctic. Announced in 2012 as one of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Northern Strategy Priorities, the building has an unconventional and unprecedented science and technology program for the Arctic. It combines advanced biology and geology laboratories as well as social science facilities with a range of services catering to the local community. The intent is to actively foster a dialogue with the holistic knowledge of elders and hunters, and to make space for celebrations and gatherings. In the words of EVOQ project architect Alain Fournier, FRAIC: “CHARS is as much a community science centre as a research station.” These overlapping missions—scientific, social and cultural—have generated a complex and hybrid building with overtones both of Thom’s symbolic-romanticism and Gérin-Lajoie’s techno-structuralism. 

A High ‘IQ’ Design Process

Alain Fournier worked for PGL Architects a few years after the firm had finished a number of buildings in Iqaluit in the early 70s, including the Gordon Robertson school. In the early 80s, he went on to assist Guy Gérin-Lajoie with the design of the same community’s iconic yellow-coloured air terminal. Later, as a partner in EVOQ’s predecessor firm, FGMDA, Fournier designed another terminal in Kuujjuaq, inspired by the form of kayaks. Fournier also completed a range of cultural and educational buildings for the Inuit of Nunavik (northern Quebec). Few southern firms have this depth and range of knowledge of building in the North. EVOQ was deeply invested in community engagement for the planning, design, and especially the art program for CHARS. Local residents became constant advisors to the design team, prompting them to apply Nunavut’s Inuit Qaujimatjatuqangit principles—translated as “that which has long been known by the Inuit.” 

The research centre is located at the edge of the town of Cambridge Bay, looking out towards the Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy EVOQ

In their 2013 pre-design report, EVOQ states that they wished their building to “make an international statement” and “be an architectural representation of northern culture, Inuit Qujimajatuqangit (IQ) in particular.” Under the notion of IQ, CHARS resisted becoming a northern outpost for the imposition of hard physical and social sciences, but rather embraced the concept that the ideas and experiences of local residents should be incorporated into nearly every research mission, and just as importantly, into the architecture of CHARS. One cannot help but be impressed that the knowledge of wildlife and landscapes of Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay) hunters and elders was tapped through the entire period of planning and construction.

Exhaustive interviews and dialogues sought to understand how people once lived and continue to live in the arctic, and how the work of Inuit artists could be presented at novel scales and in a large variety of media. Now that researchers are starting to arrive to use CHARS, there will be an ongoing two-way interaction of southern and northern ways of thinking. This notion of Qaujimatjatuqangit might serve as a broader model to Canadians of how the academy—and architecture with it—should change.

A double-height atrium joins the areas for scientific research, at right, with community meeting rooms and administrative offices, at left. Photo: Alex Fradkin

Translating IQ into building forms invoked some other concepts. An important one was qalgiq, the communal igloo of multiple domes connected by passageways. At the bubble-diagram stage of space planning, these domes became overlapping circles of activity, especially in the community portion of the building. Unfortunately, a byproduct of this process is a set of public areas with compromised spatial clarity. In section, the conical, teepee-inspired room for dialogue and elders passes through the glulam-framed main roof that surrounds it almost incidentally. There is a similar tension in plan, with the circular base of the cone aligned on the central axis of the lab wing, then the outside walls pulled and twisted in ways that yield a string of leftover spaces, designated as multi-use and exhibition areas. The translation booths and sound studio outside this circle take up the geometry of the outside walls and flanking wings, instead of the main space they serve.

A Hybrid Result

Studying the main research building’s plans reveals layouts that are a laminate of two quite different architectures, each with their own spatial form and material expression. A spiral spatial deflection is seen to the southwest, with centrifugal undulations to the exterior walls, sine-wave desks and floor art, and an angling-out of the office wing from the big metal box of the laboratory wing. This undulating public and office zone wraps two sides of a contrastingly simple big metal box; the latter contains the laboratories, workshops and teaching spaces.

Each half of the CHARS building program has a different repertoire of finishes and space-definers, inside and out. Functions that might have been separate academic pavilions on a southern campus are amalgamated here into a hybrid: consolidated by the strong local forces of harsh climate, high construction costs and the day-by-day needs of users.

Copper-painted metal panels wrap the exterior of the community-oriented areas. The upward spiralling pattern of the panels refers to the construction technique of igloos, which are assembled from rising rings of packed snow blocks. Photo: Alex Fradkin

Echoes of Ron Thom’s sensibilities are most evident in the public rooms and administrative spaces that wrap the south and west sides of the main research building, with their views down to the Northwest Passage and towards the regional landmark of Mount Pelly. In this portion of CHARS, there are some very assertive references to the spatial qualities and construction techniques of igloos—but pointedly not their resulting spatial form. EVOQ focused on the notions of open, nested spaces and building in spirals, as snow houses are traditionally assembled from rising rings of packed snow blocks. Here, this is expressed through the use of copper-painted metal panels. In a 2018 presentation to the Ontario Association of Architects, Fournier described this detail as “copper-coloured, upward-spiralling, igloo-like steel cladding shingles—a nod to the Copper Inuit, the host community, and Inuit Nunangat (community).” The design team was particularly drawn to how metallic copper surfaces catch the rich light of the low-angle arctic sun, contrasting with the snow that surrounds them for nine months a year.

Modelled after a traditional Inuit sealskin tent, or tupiq, the knowledge sharing centre is ringed by glulam columns that rise to a central skylight. Photo: Alex Fradkin

Similarly, there are references to pole tupiqs (skin-covered tents), qarmaq (a hybrid tent and sod house), and other summer or inter-seasonal structures created by the Inuit of the Arctic Islands. Fournier says that the ingenuity of these stick-built assemblies inspired the heavy glulam structure framing the station’s high-ceilinged public spaces. The key wood members are laminated small-dimension black spruce, manufactured in Quebec by Nordic Structures. Summarizing their approach in a pre-design report, EVOQ proposes that “CHARS will attempt to translate into built forms the Inuit way of doing things, not simply in the past, but as they have evolved over time. Architecture is an important platform for expressing identity. We will strive to develop a communicative iconography for CHARS.”

Some lab spaces are sized to accommodate the examination and dissection of a small whale. Photo: Alex Fradkin

In contrast, the laboratory area is housed in a steel-frame rectangular building that borrows light and vistas from a flanking atrium. If the symbolism of the public areas results from CHARS’s self-consciously culturalist aims, there is no such agenda in the scientific heart of the building. The laboratories, classrooms, guest and staff researchers’ offices are all finely conceived, comfortable and flexible—surely the most handsome and thoroughly-outfitted scientific installations in the Arctic. Nunavut has the vocationally oriented and multi-location Arctic College, but no research-oriented post-secondary institution. While CHARS will host about 60 permanent researchers, research-managers and support staff, most of those who use its facilities will be visiting biologists, geologists, botanists, archeologists, and other specialists from around the world—up to 100 of them in high summer—staying for periods ranging from a few days to many months. There is a need for classrooms for short courses, hot desks for researchers checking in from field work, and fully equipped dry and wet laboratories capable of allowing for the necropsy of a walrus or small whale.

Perhaps the most revealing drawing of CHARS is an axonometric, which clearly shows the rectangular lab functions as a large steel box, with a structural timber frame wrapped around its water-facing sides. The latter varies in span and transitions from a gridded frame to a radial arrangement, centred on the large cone of the knowledge sharing centre, a top-lit room framed and ringed by massive glulams. While engaging conceptually, this laminate of steel-box scientific labs with copper-and-wood zones serving the cultural needs of the broader community is, in places, uneasy in execution. The copper-wrap façade is punctuated with boxed-out sections in red-painted metal, and crowned with a tupiq-like projection intended to provide a land-scale marker. But the igloo-inspired metal cladding veers close to pastiche, and the visual assertiveness of the projection is incongruous for what is already a very big building in a low-scale town of less than 2,000 residents. Inside the base of this projection is the large cone of the knowledge sharing centre. It is equally problematic for this reviewer—a top-lit room, framed and ringed by massive glulams, coming across as more of a set piece than a place to sit, less about dialogue than spectacle.

The Everyday and the Extraordinary 

There were no displays in the exhibition area when I visited, but one of the great successes of CHARS is its art program, in which new works from Nunavut artists, commissioned through an Inuit Nunangat-wide art competition coordinated by Isabelle Laurier, are permanently integrated throughout the building. EVOQ worked with local artists to scale up their work: a soapstone carving of a polar bear by Cape Dorset’s Koomuatuk Curley is digitally replicated at larger size to guard the public entrance airlock. In other cases, artwork is realized in contemporary materials: a voluptuous parade of multi-coloured sea creatures based on drawings by the late Tim Pitsiulak is set into the atrium’s flooring.

The design pairs wood-framed, community-oriented gathering and exchange spaces with a steel-framed box containing the laboratories, workshops and teaching spaces. Photo: Alex Fradkin

There are also more conventional prints and paintings, and one of the most delightful pieces is a quilt by Cambridge Bay elders, where, along with scenes of hunting and travelling on the tundra, there is a needlework representation of the CHARS building itself. This said, the artworks are traditionalist in themes and media—one hopes that younger and edgier artists could be given a future platform here.  Musician, novelist and visual artist Tanya Tagaq was born and raised in Cambridge Bay, and one of her early paintings is permanently installed in the local high school. While invited to propose an artwork, Tagaq did not submit. I hope another opportunity emerges before too long, as an interactive sound installation using her astonishing range of throat-singing vocalizations could help provide emotional glue to bring together CHARS’s public spaces.

EVOQ is also responsible for the other CHARS campus buildings, namely two triplexes and the Field and Maintenance Building. This service building houses storage, “dirty” labs, mechanical services, and repair facilities for snowmobiles, four-wheelers and other equipment for researchers. This reduces noise and vibration to the main labs, not to mention saving money by building more simply. As a straightforward, metal-panel-clad box, the service building is much more similar to standard arctic construction than either the rational high-tech of CHARS’s laboratory wing, or the sculpted and warmly-finished public areas. In the spectrum of design intentions, ranging from the symbolic-romanticism of Ron Thom to the techno-structuralism of Guy Gérin-Lajoie, the services building represents a third, almost default option—those serviceable structures concocted by engineers or steel building suppliers. High design—as seen in CHARS’s complex double ambitions—is necessarily rare in the high arctic, where most buildings are obliged to be functional sheds.

Springing from architecture’s evolution in the Canadian arctic since the 1970s, he CHARS building was created through a thorough research and consultation process, one that looks to the needs of both a tight-knit local community and widespread international researchers. But despite their intentions to bring these users together, the architecture as built and detailed enforces a sense that these two worlds that still sit apart. The ambitions, craft and social mission of CHARS are admirable and impressive. Still, Canada’s high arctic remains daunting in the challenges it presents, for residents, scientists and architects alike.

Vancouver architecture critic and curator Trevor Boddy FRAIC saw three books off press in the past eighteen months: City-Builder: The Architecture of James K M Cheng from Images Press, Melbourne; and from Vancouver’s Figure 1 Press, Stantec: Airports and Glacier Skywalk (with Clea and Jeremy Sturgess).


CLIENT Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) | ARCHITECT TEAM EVOQ—Alain Fournier (FIRAC), Carolyne Fontaine, Neil McNulty, Roxanne Gauthier, Isabelle Laurier, Laurie Damme-Gonneville, Felix-Antoine Thibault. NFOE—Alan Orton (FIRAC), Geneviève Marsan, Deirdan Ellis, Frederick Ian Chu, Karine Duguay, Kate Sokolenko, Jessica Cuevas, David Estall | STRUCTURAL/MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL SNC Lavalin | INTERIORS EVOQ + NFOE | CONTRACTOR EllisDon| LABORATORIES AND SURVEYING EXP | TRANSLATION SERVICE Uqsiq Communications | COMMUNITY LIAISON Panaq Design | AUDIO-VISUAL GO Multimédia | COST Hanscomb | CODE GLT+ | ELEVATOR Les Consultants Exim Inc. | KITCHEN Bernard et associés | MICRO-CLIMATE STUDIES RWDI | LIGHTING CS Design | AREA Main Research Building (MRB)—4,855m2; Field & Maintenance Building (FMB)—1,645 m2; two triplexes—1,025 m2 | BUDGET $120 M | COMPLETION In phases between August 2015 and November 2018

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) Reduction by 55% compared to a reference building

WATER USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) Reduction by 50% or more compared to a reference building