Northern Speculations

TEXT Pamela Ritchot
IMAGES Lateral Office

Despite its far-off location and sparse population, the Canadian Arctic is a critical frontier of national importance. Canada’s vast north might be home to one of the world’s least dense populations, but its youth demographic is growing faster than anywhere else in the country. This northern frontier, no matter its distance from the densely populated southern band of Canadian cities stretching coast to coast, is of national concern because it is devoid of the infrastructure required to plan the sustainable communities necessary to secure its future. Immediate and tangible measures are needed to inform a period of strategic development that is in step with the sensitivity of its geography and culture. If this cannot be realized, then the cultural practices of hunting, fishing and Arctic mobility that were once so vibrant across northern communities could be lost forever.

Our nation’s most remote regions continue to attract much political attention, challenging the architectural profession to come up with creative solutions. Once hard-wired to produce design and construction documents for traditional buildings, the contemporary architect is facing a professional and ideological shift to favour cross-disciplinary design research that some consider to be “speculative play,” a term that involves constant and rigorous inquiry into the conditions of our surroundings, often deferring the production of actual buildings. This kind of design research can liberate or expand architectural practice across the thresholds of urban, ecological and regional design, and can place increased emphasis on the social, geopolitical and anthropological conditions of our world’s most complex regions before an architectural solution is even considered. In this way, the pressing issues of the Arctic offer inspiring and challenging opportunities for the broad-minded architect.

Led by Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Toronto-based Lateral Office has been speculating on strategies and designs for marginalized and remote regions of the world since 2007. In 2008, following their design research for the Bering Strait and Reykjavik, Iceland, Lateral Office expanded their interest in the Arctic to begin their Next North project. An anthology of six pilot projects, Next North investigates the issues and challenges central to Arctic development through six themes woven throughout their work: mobility, ecologies, culture, resources, monitoring, and settlements. For example, their Ice Road Truck Stops project uses an energy-capturing structural mesh to construct Arctic ice roads, thereby securing a seasonal transportation network while constructing varying conditions in which aquatic ecologies can flourish year-round. White describes these projects as a series of “opportunistic synergies”–the strategic coupling of two or more programs under a single infrastructural project. In Health Hangars, an aircraft hangar undergoes simple adaptations to provide for the programmatic and spatial requirements of both an airport facility and health facility. This clever yet unexpected pairing responds to regional challenges of Northern construction and material logistics, thereby allowing research to critically inform architectural action. Through their hard work, Lateral Office’s Arctic inventions might actually possess the intelligence to become a reality.

Treading these challenging Arctic waters, Lateral Office has developed an inquisitive design practice that operates across related streams of research and “speculative play.” Founded in 2003, the partnership between White and Sheppard has taken a critical step back from the expected role of architect as builder. As their name suggests, Lateral Office explores architecture as the by-product of lateral, tangential and potentially disparate streams of thought and empirical processes. Parallel to this, White and Sheppard have simultaneously developed the research collective entitled InfraNet Lab where they continue to posit new roles for architecture and urban form as conduits for the world’s resources. Their research into such networked conditions as hydrological and transportation systems directly influences–and perhaps expands–the design practice coming out of Lateral Office. Through this carefully constructed partnership, the couple has been producing systemic urban forms that respond to multiple issues at once, strengthening relationships between landscape, infrastructure and architectural systems.

Historically, we have failed to develop the necessary infrastructure to sustain Northern and Arctic communities. Avoiding local conditions and culture, the federal government has typically demonstrated sporadic interest in the North, with their interest peaking when they need to utilize the Arctic’s land mass and resources for geopolitical value. Following the onset of the Cold War, the intrigue of the Arctic frontier raised its appeal as an important territory for national expansion. Under the Diefenbaker government (1957-63), there was much talk of strategizing a Northern vision for Canada, but this only accelerated a period of shortsighted Arctic development. The government’s fundamental aim during this period of history was to maximize the region’s riches while essentially eroding the traditional Inuit way of life.

Wrongfully presuming that this land mass and its resources are for the taking, intrusions from Ottawa have perpetuated a top-down model of development that persists today. With this mindset, large-scale infrastructural development often favours purpose-engineered structures that serve short-sighted single-use needs. By way of “quick-fix” solutions to remote territories across the Arctic, it has become rare that a project demonstrates an understanding of the region’s current and future challenges. 

Historically, attempts at Northern development show us that government-led projects can quickly fail. Bureaucratic and monetary setbacks are a common occurrence across all levels of government, causing even the most essential of projects to quickly lose momentum–often resulting in the cancellation of Northern projects. Their long winters pose distinct challenges for construction and the transport of materials–the climate is simply not forgiving of any setbacks. Thus, a reliable flow of funding is essential for building in remote regions, which raises the importance of private capital. For the Arctic, private funding could ignite a rapid rate of development at a much larger scale than these communities could initiate or manage on their own.

For these reasons and more, Lateral Office’s Arctic investigations are strategically focused on the lessons learned from the Aboriginal peoples of the North, and their landscape. The firm looks to the culture, traditions, ecologies and geographical context of the North to inform their proposed technological and systematic speculations. Undoubtedly, this cross-disciplinary scope must eventually face a critical audience and a broad range of skeptics who might ask: “How far away from reality is all of this speculation?” As Lateral Office learns to avoid naïveté in their work, they just might show us how an innovative design practice can exert significant influence on a region’s development.

The firm continues to receive support for their investigative work. Last October, Lateral Office was honoured with the Holcim Foundation’s Award for Sustainable Construction, receiving a Gold Award North America for their most recent development under the Next North project–the Arctic Food Network (AFN). This project proposes immediate architectural solutions for the cultural practices of hunting, fishing and landscape mobility that are becoming increasingly threatened across the Foxe Basin in Nunavut Territory. In response to such regional challenges, the AFN is promoting a series of shelters to serve as camps, ecological harvesting stations, and data hubs. 

The Holcim Foundation awards future-oriented works t
hat demonstrate an understanding of people and their regions and a capacity to improve the living conditions in these contexts. Holcim has awarded building systems that range from locally manufactured bamboo and earthen-wall construction in rural Pakistan to long-term urban renewal strategies for post-tsunami Chile. Projects are awarded across the five major regions of the world and must align with the Foundation’s priority issues of innovative progress, ethical standards, environmental quality, economic prosperity and contextual proficiency. Winners of their first-phase regional competition receive seed money to facilitate the development and construction of their projects as they prepare to compete for the Global Holcim Awards 2012.

Lateral Office’s award of $100,000 US from the Holcim Foundation promises to drastically accelerate their investigations into Northern issues. The competition’s jury commended the AFN’s great potential to redefine sustainable living and provide the Inuit with access to an improved future that is transferrable across other Northern regions. In this future, geographically disconnected communities prosper through the mutual connectivity of three uniquely designed site conditions: land, water/ice, and coastal. Lateral Office’s distributed Arctic shelters provide navigational aids by way of data transmission towers and lighting devices that maintain safe access across the region. Using their limited understanding of local ecologies, hunting practices and the changing Northern diet, Lateral Office are studying how people traverse the land and use modest structures to secure and manage their local food network. Rather than imposing complex systems or advanced technologies on this fragile context, White and Sheppard have employed simple systems that White describes as “soft infrastructures” which improve adaptability and participatory customization by local users at each site. As climate change alters the conditions of ice, snow and open water, so too must the users alter these mobile structures by adapting them from floating water sites to structures on land. 

Harvesting stations across various sites–such as fishing holes and shelters, indoor greenhouse cultivation, as well as underwater mussel and kelp infrastructure–requires local intervention to develop individual sites as micro-economies that evolve out of newly strengthened cultural practices of land-based sustenance. Managing these ecologically based economies requires cold storage both at and below the permafrost layer, in addition to vital heat sources such as fire pits and smokestack structures to warm groups of nomadic caribou hunters. These soft infrastructures also provide fuel to smoke their game. The Holcim Awards jury for North America awarded these interventions for their ability to advance local patterns of living off of the land without defaulting to the single-purpose top-down strategies of the past. In short, the AFN merges architecture, landscape and infrastructure to create a greater synergy that will enhance the evolving relationships between people and their environment across the region.

Lateral Office’s AFN is also attempting to facilitate the evolution of the Inuit’s cultural relationship with their rapidly changing region. Their snow-wall construction, for example, combines packed snow within a wall clad in a copper skin. These snow-and-copper walls are oriented at favourable angles for exhausting smoke from cooking fires, or for capturing solar energy for storage in battery cells and interior lighting. Recalling past traditions of igloo construction, this multi-purpose infrastructure hopes to improve the functionality of future Arctic shelters–one that engages site conditions and facilitates the ability to grow local food–all while fostering a productive hub in a newly networked landscape. 

To prepare for the Global Holcim Awards 2012, White and Sheppard are using their prize money to develop two concurrent streams of work. First, they will test the architectural systems driving their new “infrastructural synergies” by building a full-scale mock-up of one or more of these systems. One such example could be an anchor system that simultaneously stabilizes floating structures in open water while providing a growth site for algae that will boost harvestable fish populations. Secondly, the pair is also working with Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth to test their ideas in community engagement and to develop a reality for the future of a viable AFN. As local ideas push back on White and Sheppard’s speculations, they hope to see a level of community-based invention emerge. 

Hopefully, the common use and operation of the AFN will strengthen the cultural ties that unite the Inuit population. Echoing the Holcim Foundation’s priorities, Lateral Office’s culturally derived investigations demonstrate architecture’s agency in developing a viable regional network that can become a part of Inuit daily life, and will move them further along in evolving a sense of identity and community that embraces 21st-century challenges and opportunities. As the AFN works toward finding regional solutions to regional issues, Lateral Office has already proven the value of research-led speculative design to influence regionally informed architecture in a real way. If adopted, the methodology behind the Arctic Food Network will provoke new potentials in sustainable development for remote regions around the world. For Lateral Office, their AFN project could validate the evolution of their cross-disciplinary research practice and find an ever-expanding place for architectural speculation in the Arctic. CA

Pamela Ritchot is an architect and urban designer currently working at planningAlliance in Toronto on a regional development project in Northern Manitoba.