Thursday, 24 October 2013

Ice Lab: Architecture in extreme environments

Guest post: Frances Keating, Conservator, MOSI

When you think of Antarctica, you are most likely to envisage one of the many images we routinely associate with the planet’s most remote and mysterious continent; possibly amazing landscapes of seemingly endless snow and ice, night skies glowing green with auroras, landmarks such as Mount Erebus or the flag at the south pole, or maybe you first think of the Antarctic wildlife, seals and cute looking penguins….

The interesting thing about the new ‘Ice Lab’ exhibition is that the angle is completely different from any of these familiar images. The focus is on a largely untold story of Antarctic architecture past, present and future, the lifestyle of the people who have to live on Antarctic research bases, and the science that these people undertake.

Having had the privilege to go to Antarctica, the exhibition resonates particularly vividly for me, for it explains the reality of a harsh and challenging environment instead of reinforcing any misconceptions of a snowy idyll, where ‘storms’ sound about as ferocious as the scene inside a shaken snow-dome. It explains the difficulty all the international Antarctic Research programmes experience trying to provide adequate structures to house scientists and base crew; buildings that somehow need to withstand winds of up to 200mph and remain stable under the weight of large quantities of snow without collapsing. As well as surviving the extreme elements, modern Antarctic dwellings also need to have far greater longevity than earlier constructions and are now being designed to incorporate the latest energy-generating technology to enable sustainability and self-sufficiency. The potential to move a whole research base from location to location is also now a reality. For many decades the most flexible living accommodation in Antarctica has been the very basic shelter provided by disused shipping containers which are relatively easy to hook onto vehicles and drag across the snow, which seems positively primitive in comparison to the new wave of space-age looking mobile bases.

Halley VI
The exhibition also contains objects that explain how base communities interact, particularly at times of celebration such as ‘Midwinter’ (the day which falls at the midpoint of the winter season when there is 24 hours of darkness). In Antarctica, the separation from family and friends puts far greater emphasis on occasions and everyone pulls together to try and make these times extra special. I find it fascinating to think that objects such as menu cards from festive dinners in the 1950s and 60s so closely resemble what would be found on an Antarctic base today. The necessity to handcraft these small tokens and gestures stands as evidence that Antarctica remains a place where resources are minimal. Only supplies that have a justifiable degree of usefulness will ever make the long, expensive, and logistically challenging journey, therefore making it impossible for anyone to indulge in a plethora of materialistic possessions during their stay. This is possibly the aspect of being in Antarctica that affected me the most personally- the realisation that we actually need very little to survive. I learnt that human beings are incredibly resilient and we have the ability to adapt, and accept and harmonise with the environment around us. Antarctica is a truly unique and magical place and Ice Lab aims to offer a tangible impression of what it is really like to be there.

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