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Polar Bears International House and Staff Residence

A research centre for Polar Bears International is resolutely contemporary in its design, with nods to the industrial vernacular of neighbouring structures in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by James Brittain

A foreboding grey and white blanket stretches out as far as I can see beneath our flight. Frozen lakes are the only punctuation, scattered like bean-shaped shadows across the tundra.

I’m on my way to Manitoba’s far northern outpost of Churchill on Hudson Bay with Montreal architect Marc Blouin, to photograph two projects that his practice, co-founded with Catherine Orzes, has recently completed: A new research and interpretation centre, and a staff residence.

Both are for Polar Bears International, a conservation group working to protect polar bears and gather data on the impact climate change is having on their winter habitat, the sea ice on Hudson Bay.

The roadside from the airport into town is dotted with stunted pine trees. Their branches only sprout on the wind’s leeward side. We pass by a big painted shed which Blouin explains is a polar bear “jail.” Errant bears that find their way to town are locked up here overnight, before being released back into the wild.

The new Polar Bears International House sits on a donated piece of land at an intersection on Churchill’s main street. Behind its blue corrugated facade—a nod to the town’s utilitarian vernacular—the building contains offices, a gallery, and a presentation space, encouraging dialogue between the community and conservationists.

Upstairs, there’s a large open common room and kitchen, along with sleeping accommodation for visiting scientists and guests. These rooms are accessed by a double-height stair in plywood, with windows framing the landscape. Though the materials are humble, the interiors are cleanly detailed and sophisticated. Across the road, the staff house is finished in white timber. Given the constraints of making architecture here, Blouin Orzes has delivered a pair of essays in refined simplicity.

The Polar Bears International Staff House sits across the street from the research centre. Photo by James Brittain

During our stay, Blouin explains the unique challenges for practicing architecture in these cold remote places, where he’s worked for some two decades.

Logistics play a big part. Summer in the far north is short, with just a few precious weeks for delivery of materials and construction. Because of this, prefabrication is favoured. In 2017, the year Blouin Orzes won the commission from Polar Bears International, storms washed away sections of the railroad, cutting the town off from southern Canada. There are no connecting roads to Churchill, so all materials had to be delivered to site by boat from Quebec.

Sensitivity is also required to meet the needs and aspirations of remote communities. Assumptions about architectural arrangement and form, site context, and how a project is used all need to be set aside in favour of careful listening and flexibility.

Making photographs in a Churchill winter is a melody of pain and delight. The light is exquisite: glowing pink and blue hues abound. The sun perpetually hangs a quarter way up, casting long shadows. But the cold is brutal.

Outside on the street, temperatures hover around minus 35°C. It’s slightly windy as I line up my shots, and my camera’s shutter release cable has hardened to resemble a coat hanger. My fingers are numb and I struggle to make it work.

I pause for a moment to consider the surreal reality: that in the midst of all this frost, irreversible environmental chain reactions from global warming are in play around me.

The camera gear and I both hold out. Ethereal arctic light is revealing the artistry of Blouin Orzes’s work.

James Brittain is an architectural photographer based in Montreal and London, UK.

 

Polar Bears International House, Churchill, Manitoba

ARCHITECTS Blouin Orzes architectes in collaboration with Verne Reimer Architecture | ARCHITECT TEAM MEMBERS Marc Blouin (MRAIC), Catherine Orzes (MRAIC), Verne Reimer (FRAIC), Julien Landry, Daryl Holloway | CIVIL KGS Engineering | STRUCTURAL Crosier Kilgour & Partners | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL SMS Engineering | CONTRACTOR FCNQ Construction | EXHIBITION DESIGNER Lupien Matteau architectes | EXHIBITION CONTRACTOR Atelier La Boutique | AREA 295 m2 | BUDGET $2,049,000 | COMPLETION June 2019

 

Polar Bears International Staff House, Churchill, Manitoba

ARCHITECTS Blouin Orzes architectes in collaboration with Verne Reimer Architecture | ARCHITECT TEAM MEMBERS Marc Blouin (MRAIC), Catherine Orzes (MRAIC), Verne Reimer (FRAIC), Julien Landry, Daryl Holloway | CIVIL KGS Engineering | STRUCTURAL Crosier Kilgour & Partners | CONTRACTOR Ted Geddert, Holz Constructors | AREA 355 m2 | BUDGET  $1,440,000 | COMPLETION December 2019

 

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