Many Norths

[Image: Many Norths: Building in a Shifting Territory].

Architects Lola Sheppard and Mason White of Lateral Office have a new book out, Many Norths: Building in a Shifting Territory, published by Actar.

The book is something of a magnum opus for the office, compiling many years’ worth of research—architectural, infrastructural, geopolitical—including original interviews, maps, diagrams, and historical analyses of the Canadian North. Or the Canadian Norths, as Sheppard and White make clear.

[Image: A spread from the book, featuring a slightly different, unused layout; via Actar].

The plural nature of this remote territory is the book’s primary emphasis—that no one model or description fits despite superficial resemblances, whether they be economic, ecological, climatic, or even military, across massive geographic areas.

“For better or for worse,” they write in the book’s opening chapter, “if nothing else [the Norths are] a shifting, multivalent territory: culturally dynamic, environmentally changing, and socially evolving. Digital and physical mobility networks expand, ground conditions change, treelines shift, species hybridize, and cultures remain dynamic and cross-pollinating.”

Exploring these differences, they add, was “the motivation for this book.”

[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

Their secondary point, however, is that this sprawling, multidimensional region of shifting ground planes and emergent resource wealth is now the site of “a distinct northern vernacular,” or “polar vernacular,” a still-developing architectural language that the book also exhaustively documents, from adjustable foundation piles to passive ventilation.

There are Mars simulations, remote scientific facilities, schools, military bases, temporary snowmobile routes (snowmobile psychogeography!), and communal utilities corridors.

[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

The book is cleanly designed, but its strength is not in its visual impact; it’s in how it combines rigorous primary research with architectural documentation.

The interviews are a particular highlight.

Among more than a dozen other subjects, there are discussions with anthropologist Claudio Aporto on “wayfinding techniques and spatial perception” among the Inuit, with “master mariner” Thomas Paterson on the logistics of Arctic shipping, with historian Shelagh Grant on “sovereignty” and “security” in the far north, and with Baffin Island native whale hunter Charlie Qumuatuq on seasonal food webs.

[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

While the focus of Many Norths is, of course, specifically Canadian, its topics are relevant not only to other Arctic nations but to other extreme environments and remote territories.

In fact, the book serves as a challenging precedent for similar undertakings—one can easily imagine a Many Wests, for example, documenting various modes of inhabiting the American Southwest, with implications for desert regions all over the world.

[Image: Spread from Many Norths].

In any case, I’ve long been a fan of Lateral Office’s work and was thrilled to see this come out.

For those of you already familiar with Lateral’s earlier design propositions published in their Pamphlet Architecture installment, Coupling, Many Norths can be seen as an archive of directly relevant supporting materials. The two books thus make a useful pair, exemplifying the value of developing a deep research archive while simultaneously experimenting with those materials’ speculative design applications.

(Thanks to Mason White for sending me a copy of the book. Vaguely related: Landscape Futures and Landscape Futures Arrives).

Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.