Editorial: Northern Exposure

A view of Cape Dorset, Nunavut--one of 25 photographs by local community members that will be on display as part of the Arctic Adaptations exhibition in Venice.  Claude Constantineau
A view of Cape Dorset, Nunavut–one of 25 photographs by local community members that will be on display as part of the Arctic Adaptations exhibition in Venice. Claude Constantineau

Architecture in Canada’s North is set to ascend the international stage. Over the past year, design-research firm Lateral Office has led Arctic design competitions in schools across Canada. As this goes to press, models of winning projects by five student teams are en route to Italy for display at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

The Canadian pavilion exhibition, entitled Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15, occasioned the current issue’s focus on the Canadian Arctic. The architects whose work is featured on these pages–Pin/Taylor Architects, Stantec Architecture’s Nunavut office (formerly FSC Architects & Engineers), Lateral Office, and Kobayashi + Zedda Architects–have all mentored a Venice Biennale student team. So has Montreal firm FGMDA, who worked with two Université de Montréal graduates on their project. While on a site visit up North, those interns took time out to visit and review an Inuit cultural learning centre for us.

This month’s reviews are spread across the North, examining one building in each of Canada’s Arctic territories: the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Sites range from the Northern metropolis of Whitehorse (population 27, 889) to the village of Clyde River on Baffin Island (population 934). The selection merely samples the diversity of contexts that make up Canada’s vast Arctic.

While each Arctic community is unique, projects across the territory face similar challenges. An obvious one is climate. “Virtually all Arctic communities are located in coastal environments with various permafrost conditions,” explain Lateral Office principals Lola Sheppard and Mason White in Many Norths, a book scheduled to come out in parallel with the Venice Biennale. Snow accumulation and drift present common challenges for building access. The winter chill itself, paired with the high cost of energy, incentivizes the construction of highly insulated building envelopes.

But advanced construction can present a downside when it uses specialized components. Many Northern communities have one chance–the annual sealift–to obtain large-scale construction materials. Any item forgotten, lost or damaged is expensive to replace by airfreight, and can sometimes be impossible to obtain until the next year. Precise planning around transportation schedules is thus a vital part of any Northern project.

Perhaps more than any other region of Canada, the Arctic is directly affected by climate change. Vanishing permafrost destabilizes building foundations, storm surges threaten coastal settlements, and the warming weather is shifting migration patterns of major food sources. “In some instances relocation of communities is being considered,” note Sheppard and White.

The social needs in the North are also great, partly due to the relocation of communities in the past: in the mid-20th century, the federal government created permanent settlements throughout the Arctic, disrupting the structures of earlier nomadic communities. Some describe the shift in the North as moving “from igloos to internet” in 40 years. Sheppard and White say that at present, “Most Northern municipalities are under pressure to address ongoing social and economic challenges regarding health, housing, education and employment.”

If the challenges are large, so too are the opportunities: lucrative resource extraction, the melting of the Northwest Passage, and the imperatives of Arctic sovereignty are all bringing renewed attention to the potential of Canada’s Arctic. If addressed strategically, these new possibilities may result in innovative infrastructure development throughout the North.

What do architects have to contribute to this conversation? Sheppard and White suggest that the ability to think at multiple scales–responding to both regional and local realities–will be key in generating an effective vision for the North. So will the ability to weave networks between Northern and Southern communities. In this regard, Arctic Adaptations–built on partnerships between students, architects and local organizations from East to West and from North to South–presents a promising paradigm.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com