A front row seat on the Ice Show
This article is part of a special feature on Climate solutions, which focuses on the changing relationship between people and the planet.
The Ilulissat Ice Fjord Center in Greenland is a 16,000 square foot building designed to cultivate respect for the beauty, importance and vulnerability of ice. Cantilevered over an inland lake with a view of a fjord called Kangia in Greenlandic, the center is an observation post, an exhibition hall, a meeting place for the inhabitants, a working space for climatologists and a classroom for school children, all housed under a corrugated roof which is also a boardwalk.
When it opens on July 3, in the western coastal town of Ilulissat, it will be the first of six centers planned to support tourism in Greenland, considered essential for the economic future of the territory in the face of high unemployment. (The expected number of annual visitors once Covid travel restrictions are lifted is 25,000.)
“Before that, only heads of state and top celebrities had the opportunity to experience the real history of ice cream,” said Jesper Nygard, Managing Director of Realdania. The Danish non-profit organization provided much of the funding for the $ 24.8 million project, which is also supported by the government of Greenland and a local municipality. “Now it will be a bigger group, but not a very large group because there is a sustainable development agenda,” Nygard said.
With 4,500 inhabitants (and almost as many dogs), Ilulissat is the third largest city in Greenland. Living there, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is like being in the front row of a perpetual parade of ice.
A 1,200-square-mile glacier called Sermeq Kujalleq crouches at the end of the 37-mile-long Ilulissat Ice Fjord, stretching forward and receding with the seasons and roaring as it pulls away from large chunks of himself. It’s the fastest glacier in the world, moving at an average of 44 meters per day. The icebergs he calves, some as large as skyscrapers, coast the fjord before entering Disko Bay, then drifting into Baffin Bay. (An ancestral offspring may have sunk the Titanic off the coast of Labrador, Canada.)
This region is also the place where the global climate crisis is made visible. From 2002 to 2012, Sermeq Kujalleq retreated nine miles – in the previous 99 years it had retreated only eight miles – and its meltwater contributes to the rise of the world’s oceans. In 2004, UNESCO placed the Ilulissat Ice Fjord on its World Heritage List.
By presenting the theme of ice in a sensitively designed structure, the Icefjord Center attempts to resolve the potential conflict between environmental preservation and the impact of tourism. The last thing a dangerously warming landscape needs, you might say, is an increase in the number of visitors increasing carbon emissions. But the center aims to compensate for this damage by educating the public, both in person and through internet programs, about climate change.
Copenhagen-based architect Dorte Mandrup triumphed over his famous peers, including design group Snohetta, Olafur Eliasson and Kengo Kuma, to win a competition in 2016 to design the project. Ms. Mandrup likens the building to a snowy owl with outstretched wings that lightly touched the bedrock.
While its appearance could be effortless, the build was anything but. In Greenland, the snow melts in May and returns in September, leaving a narrow window. There are no roads between towns; transportation is by boat, helicopter, snowmobile or dog sled. Between late November and mid-January, the sun never rises. And then there’s the mandatory five-day quarantine for architects who worked on site during the pandemic.
The building is made up of 50 steel skeletal frames with geometries that transform from triangles to squares and back to triangles. Eighty percent of the steel is recycled and the structure is finished in European oak. Ms Mandrup and her team mounted a model of the building in a wind tunnel in Denmark to ensure that the aerodynamic shape would prevent snowdrifts from building up in strong westerly winds. (Potato flour was used to replace snow.) The dismantled structure was then packed in containers and shipped to Greenland, where it was rebuilt on site.
Inside the boomerang-shaped center are facilities typical of museums around the world: an information desk, a gift shop, a cafe. Less typical is the haunting landscape presented through glass walls containing motorized wooden louvers that disappear into the ceiling.
The centerpiece is a 4,300 square foot exhibition space showcasing “The History of Ice,” a permanent multimedia installation that traces the science, anthropology and environmental impact of ice on hundreds of thousands of people. ‘years. Designed by JAC Studios of Copenhagen, the exhibition includes ancient ice cores, a sound installation evoking a river moving through an arctic landscape and an exhibition of immersive photos of the Greenlandic ice cap.
Beyond the exhibition space are administrative and research offices where scientists can come from the field and examine the data. There is also an outdoor classroom and plans for distance education programs for children around the world. The parts of the building that are heated (about three-fifths of its total area) use recycled energy from the city’s hydropower plant for net zero carbon emissions. An outdoor fireplace heats up a sheltered gathering place on the west terrace. And the rooftop walk is a perch for watching sunsets and the Northern Lights. Descending four small steps at one end of the roof, visitors can embark on a hike along a trail that leads to the ruins of an Inuit settlement.
The roof / boardwalk is just one illustration of how the sculptural building acts as a “gateway between civilization and the immense desert,” as Ms. Mandrup described it. She specializes in creating platforms for studying delicate habitats, or what she calls “irreplaceable places”. Its 2017 Wadden Sea Center on the west coast of Denmark, one of a group of three related projects, is a thatched shard on the edge of an intertidal area teeming with migratory birds. The Whale, a building underway for the Norwegian island of Andoya, above the Arctic Circle, is a parabolic concrete hull with a long horizontal view of the mountains and cetacean-filled waters.
The Icefjord Center also finds an urban echo in the rooftop park Mrs Mandrup designed for an Ikea store in Copenhagen. When it opens, it will offer a rare green setting in an industrial district and will connect to a new one-kilometer pedestrian path.
“I think you have a responsibility when you take land away,” she said. Not all architects would.