Book Review: Many Norths—Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory
Writing on the Arctic is no small feat, and assembling the wealth of information present in the latest book by the principals of Toronto’s Lateral Office is a remarkable undertaking. The appearance of Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory is also timely, arriving at a moment when Arctic communities are facing many challenges and opportunities. This deftly crafted book should be mandatory reading for students in architecture and architects interested in developing a practice above the Canadian tree line.
The book advances research developed for the 2014 exhibition Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15 at the Venice Biennale in Architecture, and is divided into five sections: Urbanism, Architecture, Mobility, Monitoring and Resources. The first sections focus on the building and settlement types that have resulted from the traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic lives of Indigenous peoples. The later chapters detail actions taken in response to geopolitics, survival and the exploitation of resources. Each section includes a timeline and essay, along with interviews with scholars, architects, resource managers and members of Inuit communities, as well as case studies abundantly supported with maps, graphics, tables and photos. These graphic components enable the Southern reader to visualize the vastness and harshness of the polar context, and familiarize themselves with technical solutions devised by architects and engineers who have wrestled with the specifics of this region.
Sheppard and White align themselves with sympathizers who are shedding light, without judgement, on the diversity of Arctic practices—whether those of the Qallunaat (White people) or the Indigenous populations. They do not shy away from controversial aspects of history or current affairs, but often elect to address these issues through the voices of interviewees. Embedded in the essays and interviews, the reader will discover, sadly, how fraught with trauma the Arctic can be.
Writing on the Arctic with Southern notions can be hampering. For instance, the concept of public space that is generally understood in relation to dense urban environments does not quite reflect the social structures of hamlets, where private and public realms are sometimes intertwined. Still, the concept has relevance, and the authors and interviewees provide examples of indoor public spaces that, out of necessity, serve many functions. The broader concept of the “public sphere” is astutely reinterpreted. Combining insights from Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, and anthropologist Claudio Aporta, Sheppard and White argue that the “trail,” as a connector of communities, is to be considered “the public sphere of the Arctic.” This conclusion is supported by descriptions of mobility patterns that are deeply connected to the land and to seasonal cycles, and which have profoundly shaped the identity of the Inuit to this day. Beyond its theoretical content, the case studies in the fascinating chapter on mobility introduce the reader to multiple modes for transporting goods—from skidoo trails, ice roads and roads on permafrost to sea and airlift processes.
The well-documented section on architecture is chronologically organized from pre-contact to today, allowing the reader to appreciate the ingenuity of traditional dwellings and the current challenges of building. Through interviews with some of the veterans of Arctic architecture, the reader catches a glimpse of the tensions between governmental agencies, clients and architects, and the progress that has been made in the last two decades because of better-structured consultation processes. This is indirectly shown through a close reading of the case studies, which mostly look at education buildings from the 1970s to 2012. Essays and interviews in the sections on monitoring and resources reveal much about the challenges at stake in today’s Arctic lands, including the questions of sovereignty and the impact of climate change.
The book is not without its limitations. For instance, the “many norths” here covered are mostly to be found in the Western and Central Arctic, with a few incursions in Nunavik and almost none in Nunatsiavut. Curiously, there is one major missing element in the visuals: a map of the four regions of Inuit Nunangat using the terminology officially adopted by its Indigenous peoples—Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut. The authors’ attempt at defining the term “vernacular” is also somewhat muddy. Between qualifiers such as polar, nascent, suppressed, northern, emerging and modern, the reader is left with a rather confusing picture of what vernacular design might look like in this remote region.
Nonetheless, Many Norths is an important and informative addition to the small body of literature on the built environment of the Arctic. It draws our attention not only to the critical issues of the past and present, but also to the huge potential that the region holds.
Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory, by Lola Sheppard and Mason White. Actar, 2017.