We’re exploring ICE LAB

4 Dec

Claire Dean contemplates life in a well-appointed freezer.


image Ⓒ Rene Robert/International Polar Foundation

Shattered ice and murky seawater rush against vivid red metal. At the heart of the kaleidoscopic visuals, a diamond is formed from the hull of a British Atlantic Survey research ship. The relentless movement and threatening sense of mass draw you in. You can watch Torsten Lauschmann’s Ice Diamond installation as though the diamond is breaking through the ice, or with a flip of perspective the ice is crushing in on it from every side.

This precarious relationship between the man-made and the environment is a central theme of Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, The exhibition, initiated by the British Council and curated by The Arts Catalyst, introduces the “new genre of architecture” that has emerged in the most inhospitable place on earth.

It’s a compact and at first glance unassuming exhibition, but Ice Lab proves to be an excellent guidebook to another world. Photographs, drawings, films and models are presented without hierarchy and give an intriguing insight to Antarctic life. Display cabinets share scientific findings, artefacts and ephemera. In one you can see handmade menus from midwinter celebrations – a special calendar custom for anyone based on Antarctica. Ventifacts – stones carved by the forces of the wind – sit in another.


© karl tuplin

Five research stations are documented in detail. With their visionary architecture they resemble space stations rather than anything earthbound. The UK’s Halley VI (above) is the world’s first fully relocatable polar research station. Located on a floating ice shelf it’s equipped with hydraulic legs and giant skis to allow it to climb up out of the snow. To survive long in Antarctica such strategies are essential – all of Halley’s previous incarnations were buried and crushed by the weight of snow.

Increasingly, architects are considering the hostile environment to be an ally rather than an enemy, and their inventive approaches to building are responsive to local conditions. Halley VI architect Hugh Broughton says, “We like to think of Halley VI as a visitor to Antarctica, not a resident.”

The desire to have a low impact on the pristine environment is common to all the stations. Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth is Antarctica’s first zero-emission station. It uses a layered stainless steel structure to remove the need for interior heating. India’s Bharati is primarily constructed from the shipping containers used to bring the rest of its materials to the continent. Korea’s Jang Bogo uses an aerodynamic triple-arm design to provide resistance to the elements and will be one of the largest year-round bases when it opens in 2014.

Iceberg Living Station is a speculative plan by David A. Garcia to carve out a research station inside an iceberg. Inspired by igloos, it uses compacted snow as an insulator, making it unnecessary to transport building materials from off-continent. A short film shows the architecture growing from a main hall deep inside the iceberg. With its dendritic spurs, the floor plan made me think of a snowflake. Drawings show cloister-like caverns tunnelled out by caterpillar excavators traditionally used for clearing snow. The design takes advantage of the geometric forms produced by their movement. At the end of the film we’re told, “Eventually the iceberg will melt and architecture becomes water.” In twenty-first-century Antarctica, the borders between science, architecture and art are thin.

These buildings allow scientists to carry out research in extreme environments. Research projects in climate science, astronomy, geophysics, environmental biotechnology and biodiversity take place here in conditions as close to those of outer space as the earth can provide.

Torsten Lauschmann’s second installation, Whistler, is inspired by the very low frequency electromagnetic waves generated by lightning strikes. Caught and converted to sound by scientists, they aid research into the atmosphere and gravitational fields. Lauschmann’s audio and light projection crackles and wheels with high-pitched sounds as a wave pattern cycles through colours that suggest aurorae one minute and alien vegetation the next.

A whistler observed in Antarctica can have travelled many thousands of miles from a lightning strike in North America. There is a real sense of interconnectedness throughout the exhibition, eroding the perceived distance between our lives and the home of ninety per cent of the planet’s ice. Images show the thinning of the ozone layer, caused by the use of CFCs, and first reported in 1985 by the British Antarctic Survey. A neighbouring panel explains the relationship between climate change, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels. By allowing scientists to carry out groundbreaking work in Antarctica, this new generation of research stations is helping us all.

Viewing photographs of the stations’ interiors, – cosy pods with sleek fittings and pool tables with wondrous views – it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the Antarctic population are enjoying comfortable new worlds. But the constant eerie noise and shifting ice of Lauschmann’s installations provide a stark reminder of the dangerous beauty outside the door.

(Ice Lab is at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry until 6 January 2014.)


Claire Dean discovers a crystal world in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out 22 January 2014.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts considers Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman.

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