Winter Harvest

Winnipeg's Sputnik Architecture revives a local practice.

Sputnik and its collaborators have developed specialized tools for ice harvesting. Photo by Lawrence Bird / Sputnik Architecture

Ice is elemental. As crystallized water, it might be seen as a building block of life. But it can be a literal building block too: witness the Warming Huts built from ice by Sputnik Architecture, including Anish Kapoor’s 2015 Stackhouse. Ice can serve a social purpose also: bearing goods to remote communities, like Manitoba’s famed Ice Roads; or connecting parts of the city usually divided by water, like Winnipeg’s Nestawaya River Trail. Social connector, artistic medium, or building material: these are all aspects of ice explored every year by Sputnik Architecture in multiple creative projects carried out in the community.

In 2022 Sputnik worked with Downtown Winnipeg’s Business Improvement Zone to produce an ice sculpture trail running from Nestawaya River Trail to the Exchange District’s Burton Cummings Theatre. The project involved local artists—including Hargraves himself, stepping in for Norwegian-Italian ice artist Luca Roncoroni, who was stranded in Europe by the pandemic. Hargraves also worked with Larry Macfarlane, Corby Pearce, and prize-winning carver Manoj Khorugdharry to create an Ice Palace for the Northern Manitoba Trappers’ Festival in the northern community of The Pas. And Sputnik worked with Pembina Hill Arts Council and local sponsors to coordinate the second annual ice harvesting and carving workshop on Lake Minnewasta, in southwest Manitoba.

If this seems like the sort of work architects don’t usually get involved with, it is a labour of love for Hargraves and others at Sputnik. Their agenda is to make ice carving part of winter culture throughout Manitoba. To this end they bring in ice sculptors from across the country, recruit local artists to try out ice as a medium, and teach the technique of ice harvesting to anyone who wants to learn it. This is an intentional nod to the past. Manitoba’s winter festivals once hosted skating rinks, ice castles, and towering ice chutes. Ice for these was harvested from waterways, as were blocks for summertime use in “ice boxes.” This practice had disappeared from Winnipeg when it was reintroduced by Sputnik and Roncaroni.

A constellation of tools helps with this process, beginning with an articulated chainsaw developed by Sputnik and its collaborators at the Forks, and ending—at the ice stacking and carving stage—with an array of scratch boards and razor-sharp chisels, often home-made. The hope at Sputnik is that these techniques can be mobilized to soon create in Manitoba the kind of Ice Hotel which has become popular elsewhere. In fact, Hargraves and Winnipeg-based artist Chris Pancoe will be flying to Europe this November to contribute a room to Sweden’s Ice Hotel.

Ice as a medium underlines the ephemerality of all construction: none of these structures last long. But it takes on a particular poignance in light of the current climate crisis and the unpredictable weather that it is producing. Indeed, Stackhouse almost never happened because the entire harvest of ice dedicated to it (over 100 tonnes) melted irretrievably in a mid-winter thaw. Only a heroic effort and a second ice harvest salvaged the situation. Rivers, even Winnipeg’s, are becoming less reliable as a source of ice, and on occasion ice from lakes and quarries has to be used instead. Water is what makes this planet what it is, and ice is water in reserve—but a reserve rapidly diminishing. Sputnik’s wintertime works, while they engage and delight us, also remind us that everything passes.

Lawrence Bird works in Winnipeg at Sputnik Architecture.