Thursday, September 17, 2009

Going Troppo

"Going troppo" refers to the slip into madness some people are thought to go through because of intense tropical heat. To "go troppo (tropical)" means to go crazy. Its not coincidence then that the name of a stellar architecture firm in Darwin, Northern Territory is Troppo Architects. I had an amazing time in Sydney, thanks mostly to the incredible people I met there, but I've found I get more and more ancy in densely populated cities recently. Sitting in the window seat of flight JQ73 to Darwin, I looked down over the barren red nothingness that is the outback with a sense of anticipation and wonder. Small dirt roads criss-crossed the landscape in orderly fashions, creating a subtle grid of dissected earth that almost looks comical in its attempt to tame the untamable. A few hours later the vision below changed again, revealing trees first stubbornly lifting their heads, then gathering courage and banding together to form the lush tropics.

Darwin is in the extreme Northwest of the Northern Territory of Australia. The first sight that greeted me as I disembarked from the plane was a federal police car with a crash bar and snorkel. You know you're getting somewhere serious when emergency vehicles are equipped with snorkels and heavy 4WD tires. Everything on the surface at least is a stark contrast to the relatively easy of life of those around Sydney. I saw multiple "crash repair" shops on a walk down to the water and if you possess a car people will likely ask you where your second spare tire is. Put it this way, the first snack I had at the local market was crocodile instead of corn on the cob.

There is said to be still great tensions between the aboriginals and the whites living in the area. I just arrived today so I'll decline to assess the touchy situation too deeply until I've been on the ground a bit longer. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 though established the ability for the indeginious populations of Australia to be able to claim land they could prove had been inhabited by Aborigines. The population of the whole of the NT is only around 220,000 with Aborigines making up about a third of that. There are over 521,000 square miles, or about 2 square miles for every person. Land ownership right now breaks down to Aborigines owning about 50% of the overall territory. Its a big political deal now what is happening to the remote communities {attempting to provide aid/schools} but the tricky part seems to be what is "help" and what is regarded as force feeding of ideals. Hopefully I'll be able to get a closer look a the situation at the rural communities, but passage alone means having a permit to get into certain areas so not sure if it will pan out.

Its "The Dry" right now, with "The Wet" coming sometime in October. When the wet comes, roads are swept away, becoming impassable because of the floods. Most Australians break down the seasons of the area around Darwin into just two, wet and dry, though Aboriginal people recognize six seasons instead of our normal four {Gunumeleng, Gudjewg, Banggereng, Yegge, Wurrgeng, and Gurrung}. The quiet before the storm is what is said to be hardest on the nerves, and the murder rate noticeably jumps up every year in the weeks leading up to the first rain of the season. The escalating violence could be seen as the nerves being worn thin, similar to going to work every day in the shadow of a volcano, knowing it could erupt at any time. Along with the wet comes the cyclones...

Even with all of our might and machines and technology we have not succeded in taming mother nature. The cyclone named Tracy is testament to this. Cut to Christmas morning, 1974, Tracy sweeps through, killing 65 people and decimating 60% of the entire city. Just more of a reason that houses have to be designed of and for a place. Knowing the intricacies of a climate and what nature is capable of. A model of building taken from another place will not survive. In some ways I think of the human race as caretakers of a house where the real owners are gone temporarily on vacation. After a while we manage to convince ourselves that it is our property, but in fact we're just watering the plants {or depleting ozone levels if you're a glass half full kind of person}.

I met with Simon Scally of Build-Up-Design the other day. He was kind enough to talk to me on a friday afternoon, but showing up with a six pack of VB apparently didn't hurt. Build Up does a lot of great work, a lot of it in Arnhem land, a large portion of Aboriginal land East of Darwin. Almost everything is flown/driven the long distances to the sites, and labor is usually flown in by helicopter for 3 week stints. Sometimes local labor is used, but often times builders prefer to use people they are used to working with, also because many of the specialty trades like electrical and plumbing are not yet available. Many of the fittings/hardware are inexpensive and uncomplicated farm equipment, allowing for easy repairs and holding up under the harsh conditions. Locally made mud-bricks are used within a steel frame for lateral bracing as well as its non corrosive qualities. For forest fires, the area around the houses are cut back and raked, with the other reasoning being that footprints of anyone coming near the house at night can be seen the next day. There are so few people in many of the communities that they can be identified by their individual footprints. Being extremely superstitious, its also allows them to see evil spirits at night with more visibility.

Thoughts on Traveling #25 :

For all the LOST fanatics... How strange is it that the Darwin flag and Dharma logo look similar in shape? Also the exact same Japanese fleet that bombed Pearl Harbor also bombed Darwin in WWII. LOST was filmed in Hawaii... One of the Dharma stations is called "The Tempest", Darwin has a lot of cyclones... I think you see where I'm going with this. The conclusion is just too easy really...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Obsessions with Extremities

So much to report! Been busy since my last posting and am currently sitting in the National Library of Sydney prepping for the weeks ahead. Over the past few days/weeks little birds have been whispering in my ear about different ideas/projects relating to my topic of study. The "not late, still great" Peter Lingamfelter brought to my attention a fascinating recent post on the BLDGBLOG concerning "Art of Extreme Environments" {also make sure to check out the HUGE shout-out to fellow Branner Nick Sowers on the BLDGBLOG in another post here! I felt like a proud sibling at a soccer game reading through it}. The exhibition about "Art of Extreme Environments" is going on in Paris right now and a lot of the work has to do with existing in arctic environments, as well as the overall issue of citizenship there. Very similar to the "no man's land" issue brought up in the previous post on Svalbard.

In other news the author Ruth Slavid has totally stolen my book idea! Not really of course, but do you know the crippling feeling when you have a bright, beaming light bulb of an idea only to find out someone else has already invented it? I can still remember when I "invented" personal-size popcorn bags and then found them in the supermarket a week later... Well Slavid has just came out with a book entitled Extreme Architecture: building for challenging environments. Its actually an extremely well done book, though I still believe the best chapters to be the first two {hot & cold}. Later in the book she devotes a whole section to ski lifts it feels like, which somewhat misses the point in my view. Though again this might just be the little green monster talking. I had pre-ordered a copy before it even came out and as soon it arrived at my door a week ago I disregarded my normal unwillingness to unwrap the package and tore right into the amazon envelope.

Taken together, all of these interactions just confirmed what I've already began to believe. People have become obsessed with extreme locations. Extreme architecture. Basically anything with the radical adjective in front of it. What are most people's definitions of extreme? Why the need to differ so much for the norm? Perusing random bookstores I've began to become like Jim Carrey's character in the movie 23, completely obsessed with relating anything and everything back to my topic of study. A book on "Tropical Architecture." Of course. "Semi Non-Urban Landscapes." Okay... why not? "How to Train Police Dogs." There might be something in there... Everything is relatable if you can argue it correctly, or get your listener drunk enough. But many titles actually did seem to have something to do with my topic, or at least my semi-cynical fascination with our current use of the word extreme.

Books I've recently found with "extreme" in the title:

Extreme Architecture
Extreme Hotels

Extreme Restaurants

Extreme Bars

Surviving the Extreme

Small Buildings : Extreme

What makes a restaurant extreme? What an odd book to publish. Unless you're having to fight off a gorilla while eating a cheeseburger I don't understand it. Personally, in the case of Slavid's book, I consider the obsession with "extreme" mankind's willingness to dream of far off lands. Lands where we're not supposed to be. Tell a person they're not allowed in a restricted area, they start looking for the nearest fence to jump or wall to climb. Its just human nature I guess. I'm in Australia now and keep seeing the similarities in the American and Aussie Spirits. The need for adventure, exploration, the wide open road stretching out before you. I hadn't given the American sense of restlessness enough thought until I read Steinbeck's book Travels with Charley. In driving across the States for 3 months in a camper he lays out the American need for exploring better than I ever could.

"Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home."

-John Steinbeck 1962

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Svalbard Arctic Adventure!

"The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed most by those who shall live in Svalbard."

-Nord for Det Ode Hav, Liv Balstad 1956

Svalbard, Norway. One of the Northernmost settlements in the world, right up there with Greenland, climbing way past the arctic circle. Human Population = 2100. Polar Bear Population = 3000+. Not a single tree to speak of. The highest vegetation goes up to about your shin and firewood must be shipped from the mainland. 60% Glaciers. Howling, biting winds. Annual air temperature below freezing (-5C). Permafrost at 6 inches below ground. One of the most inhospitable places in the world. Why is anyone living there? Why did I travel there would be a better question...

Well, there are a lot of answers, but the short history of Svalbard is that it was almost always considered a "no-man's land". Meaning no one had true possession of it. If you came out here you were on your own. It wasn't until Norway declared sovereignty over it in 1925 that it was formally recognized as part of a country. Even as recent as the 1990's if you got off the airplane at Longyearbyen (the main settlement) and didn't have the necessary means of survival (tent, sleeping bag, rifle, etc...) you would be turned away and sent back on the same plane you landed on! It is a land of explorers, trappers, miners, whalers, and of course, polar bears. The huge, furry, teethy true owner of the area. The image of the polar bear is everywhere in Svalbard. On signs, coffee mugs, pamphlets, even greeting you at the baggage carousel when you get off the plane (see above...). There are more bears than people, and anytime you leave the main settlement, you are required by law to carry a gun, or have a guide with a gun, in case you have to defend yourself! It is a place where those that would stay have to bunker in against all of the forces that would expel them back to where they came from. It is almost impossible to meet someone born on Svalbard, though the locals that have been there 30+ years are by far the most stress free human beings I've met.

The reason I was there though... Sure it was probably some of the subconscious promise of adventure that lead "The Wanderer" to climb the mountain in Friedrich's painting, or Ogilvie to come out on an expedition to the ends of the earth. But really it was to understand how people were able to exist (and thrive) in an environment that so eagerly wants them gone. How do people build when there is quite literally almost nothing to start with, and how to respond to the climatic challenges involved?

Permafrost is one of the biggest deals up in the northern reaches, meaning frost that never disappears year round. Permanent frost if you will. If the buildings were built with normal foundation systems like the mainland, by resting on or under the earth, the heat generated from the buildings would start to melt the frost, causing the earth to start shift and become unstable. Indeed many of the buildings built by trappers long ago have slid many meters just from their own produced heat alone. To combat this ultimately impossible battle with mother nature, the buildings of Svalbard have learned to raise themselves up on stilts in order to get enough distance from the earth that the difference in temperature does not affect the permafrost. Some of the pilings (such as the research centre below) are drilled as deep as 15m below ground. The building above is an extreme example of the floating structures, as it was used to house funiculars going up and down the hills for the coal mining operations.

One building though, the "Global Seed Vault", is in Svalbard for precisely the reason of permafrost. The ground is always kept at a constant freezing temperature, there is no real earthquake danger, and the location is above sea level (by 120m). All of these factors mean that seeds from around the world can be stored free of the danger of fire, seismic activity, and floods due to icecaps melting. There are over 1.5 million different types of seeds housed in the vault already and it burrows over 150m into the mountain. Its actually just what you would expect a post apocalyptic bunker to be like, stark gray concrete with only one large metal entrance to the depths underneath. When we hiked up and stood before the portal, I could imagine the door creaking open to release a man in clothes from the 1950's, bleary eyed and confused... "What year is it?" he would say. And just to mess with him I would reply "No one knows, we are the last of our kind...".

The biggest building in Longyearbyen is pretty recent, the Svalbard Research Centre, designed by the Norwegian firm JVA based out of Oslo. Before that one of the largest structures was the Radisson hotel, that was part of the Olympic games in 1998 and then shipped out piece by piece to its new resting grounds (many buildings are built in chunks in the mainland and then shipped out to site). But the research centre was too big to be built in chunks, though the majority of all the structure was prefabricated to allow for ease of use putting together on site. The period of construction in Svalbard is short, and as the winter approaches it becomes too cold to continue, so building must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the case of the Research Centre, one of the main conditions was actually wind. To protect against the harsh environments, it was to function as a sort of arctic university campus, though inside-out. Anders Granli over at JVA says one of the main factors leading to them getting the project was their philosophy of what a campus could be. Since its impossible to wander around sunny tree-lined boulevards flanked with maples, the parks and sidewalks of the campus are inside, along the wood lined warm corridors. The interior form is meant to recall the distorted mind shafts that are borrowed into the hills, with colors placed to psychologically recall the hues of the small amounts of flora that exist in Svalbard.

On the outside, the building had to be able to react to the extreme winds and storms that would be coming its way. Extensive computer modeling was down to cant the forms and elevations, allowing snow drifts to go through rather than around the raised building. Eva, the lady that was giving me a tour explained that the interior courtyard still traps some of the snow and trash from the city, though proudly pointed out that they have the last bit of summer snow in Longyearbyen every year. Copper was chosen on the outside of the building because of its material properties relating to cold. Where other metals get brittle and break, copper was able to be manipulated by a worker with heavy gloves on even in the very low digits. It also allowed for less seams, with the roof wrapping down to the sides and slightly underneath, with less chances for wind swept snow to pierce to the air gap inside the wall cavity.

I was drawn to Svalbard and its architecture precisely because of this stubbornness to exist. Not a single tree on the entire island means everything, and I mean everything ('cept coal) has to be imported from the mainland. Many of the buildings, like the Radisson hotel, are "chunked", built in bigger pieces in Norway and shipped out to be placed down in the settlement. A downside of this seems to be the buildings look and react the same way they do in other places, not native to Svalbard. Besides the bedroom windows being tiny (midnight sun), they are almost identical to houses you would typically see around Oslo or other places. I asked one of the professors at UNIS about insulation levels, thinking they must be gigantic compared to houses in milder climates, but surprisingly he answered they were almost identical in section, with an air gap in between the sheathing and relatively thin depth. The way they get around this is coal. Cheap King Coal. The entire settlement of Longyearbyen is heated by giant hot water pipes coming directly from the local coal plant a long stone's throw down the road. There is plenty of power to go around so the radiators just get turned up a little bit more and everyone is toasty. It turns out that the wind is the big thing you have to protect against. It is one of the few places that I know of that the separation of power produced and home use is completely abandoned, with everyone walking or driving by their source of livelihood almost every day. The fossil fuels are so abundant on the island and all other power sources so hard to ship that it might be one of the few cases where coal is the more sustainable option, I'm still torn on the subject. In a funny/sad side note, they add chemicals to make the smoke from the plant grey instead of black, which looks better, but then I'm imagining all of these more harmful chemicals floating around in the air b/c of it.

Thoughts on Traveling #24 :

Legally, I have to add that I had been joined in Svalbard by the rough and very tough character of Shawn "'Stache" Nee. He's a law student and has threatened numerous times to sue me unless I say he saved me from a polar bear. It's true, it's all true.