By Matthew Jull
As the plane descended from the clouds, I could begin to make out the familiar contours of landscape and shoreline, an image burned into familiarity after almost six years of staring at it through Google Earth. Located just below Signal Hill, I could see the small cluster of buildings that belonged to the hamlet of Resolute Bay, awkwardly set back from the shoreline pressed with late June sea ice, amidst the streaks of snow and gravel that define summertime in the high arctic. It had taken six years and several thousand dollars to visit and document one of the great environmental and social projects of the 20th century in the Arctic. The new town for Resolute, designed by Swedish architect Ralph Erskine, was to have been a significant experiment in physical and social planning that was intended to set a precedent for future land-use and social programs throughout the North (1). The primary object of my study was the partially-completed building now called South Camp Inn which, apart from later modifications, was the one building designed and built from Erskine’s original plans. Surprisingly, no architectural drawings or photographs from the interior of this building were available —even within the Swedish national archives. Over the course of five days in late June of 2014, I had the rare chance to visit and document the project. What I did not anticipate was a glimpse of the conflicting symbolism of Erskine’s project within the community and ultimately the difficult task that architecture faces in Canada’s high north where the present-day social, cultural, and economic challenges resulting from mid-20th century colonialism are almost as extreme as the environment itself.
Resolute Bay—known as Qausuittuq—is located on Cornwallis Island, 800 km north of the Arctic Circle in Nunavut. A small hamlet consisting of a population just under 200, a nearby scientific research base, and an airport about 6 km away, this is one of the most northern and isolated settlements in the world. As with other communities in the high arctic, Resolute experiences continuous periods of darkness for months on end and an average annual temperature of -15oC that can drop below -50oC in the winter. The settlement was established about 70 years ago by the Canadian government, and the town has a complex and difficult history (2). Due to its strategic location in northern Canada along the Northwest Passage, a landing strip, airport, and scientific research facilities were established in the 1940s. In the late 1950s, the Canadian government, seeking to demonstrate “effective occupation of the Arctic” and to address poor living conditions for the Inuit living in northern Quebec, forcibly relocated Indigenous families here from Inukjuak and other communities from further south (3). Displaced from their traditional lands to the high arctic, the result was extreme hardship and poverty.
In an effort to redress these problems in the early 1970s, and with a resurgence in oil and mineral exploration in the Arctic, the Canadian government commissioned architect Ralph Erskine to design a new town for Resolute that would solve the housing problem for the Inuit, provide additional accommodation for an expected influx of over a thousand new workers, and socially and culturally integrate the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population. Having developed a reputation as a visionary architect and urban designer in northern Sweden, and influenced by the social and environmental imperatives in Europe architecture circles, Erskine sought to design an ideal new town that would bring the social and environmental optimism of modernism to the high arctic. Foregrounding environmental design with community involvement and outreach with the Inuit as well as scientists and government officials, Erskine carried out extensive research on the site and consultations with the residents. In fact, so extensive was this research, that PhD student Boris Culjat produced a nearly four hundred page dissertation that documented the research and design process. The result is a singular manifesto on town planning and architecture in extreme arctic conditions, revealing the stages in decision making and contrasting views between the Inuit and the southerners that Erskine was attempting to resolve (4).
Erskine’s final design proposed the relocation of the existing Inuit housing from a shoreline site across the bay to a new site, further inland on the leeward slope of Signal Hill. A new housing typology was developed that addressed the deficiencies in existing homes, many of which were imported from the south and were poorly designed for the demanding Arctic climate. A key design feature of the new town was a continuous wall-like building nearly 1 km long that would nearly encircle a cluster of detached homes and community buildings, creating a sheltered town centre. This idea was a development of one of Erskine’ signature design approaches from northern Sweden. Acting as an environmental boundary between town and open tundra, the inhabited wall structure was to include apartments for workers, a hotel, shops, a grocery store, medical services, a library, and a swimming pool, all within close proximity to detached houses and other buildings in the interior of the new town (5).
With a decline in economic conditions mid-way through construction, the expansion of the town was no longer necessary and the project was abandoned in the late 1970s. At this point the existing Inuit homes had been relocated to the new town site, but none of the new housing designs that Erskine had developed were built. Of the wall-building, a short section about one hundred metres in length was completed, containing ten individual two-storey apartments. This building was briefly used as administrative offices until it was bought by a resident and private investor, who turned it into a hotel and apartment complex in the 1990s. Four of the ten units were later modified between 1997 and 2008 to accommodate the new hotel (South Camp Inn). Additions to the east side of the wall building included a conference room, kitchen, gym, and offices. Despite these modifications, and later addition of a school, gym, community centre, and indoor ice rink to the town, Erskine’s overall masterplan for Resolute remains largely intact.
During my visit to I stayed in South Camp Inn, and over the course of five days, I was able to view and document most of the adjoining apartments. The overall design of the building is a two story, wood frame construction resting on steel piles driven into the permafrost. Most of the residents living in the wall-building are temporary workers from the south, many being employees of the multinational corporation Atco Structures & Logistics, who now own the building. The surviving apartment units (5 through 10) are intact and, based on interior finishes, fixtures, and comparison between the units, appear to preserve their original design. The layout of the apartments is compact and efficient, with three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, a living room and kitchen downstairs, and built in cabinets for storage. There were several design features that were clearly a response to the Arctic environment, including air locks for front and rear doors, interior wooden sliding window shutters to block out 24 hr summer sunlight, and ventilation ports. What was most striking, however was the siting of the building: on one side was the town centre, and on the other open tundra. It was also noteworthy that the positions and orientation of many of the windows, which were elongated horizontally, were below eye level, which would reduce interior glare from the low-angle sun characteristic of high latitudes. At the time of my visit, building maintenance was being supervised by a single Atco employee – one of two people I met who were aware of the architectural significance of the building – and he took pride in trying to preserve the original fixtures and details, which is no small feat in community where building supplies are scarce.
As I carried out my research, I became increasingly aware of the significance of Erskine’s building within the town. On the one hand, it is the largest housing block, with a simple rectangular form that steps down the slope of the hill leading to the water (6). The unique design of the façade, roof, and windows clearly sets it apart from the other housing in Resolute, most of which reflect a legacy of poorly designed and built housing imported from the South. Despite being described as one of the most comfortable buildings in which to live in Resolute, multi-unit housing is the least desirable for Inuit families (7). But what sets it apart the most is that the hotel has all of the conveniences of the south, with an abundance of fresh food flown in regularly, and a room rate of $275 per night; it stands as much as an architectural barrier to the extreme environment as a symbol of economic and cultural disparity within the town.
In many ways the surviving fragment of Erskine’s design for Resolute is functioning as initially intended: a majority of temporary workers and visitors live in the wall-building, while the Inuit live in detached houses. However, what was meant to be a project of cultural integration and improved living conditions clearly did not occur. In his later years, Erskine expressed disappointment that the full benefit of his original design was never realized, and that the residents suffered the consequences (8). It is true that if the new detached housing Erskine had designed had been built, it likely would have improved the quality of homes in Resolute. But it is questionable that if the entire project had been completed, that the present-day outcome would have been much different. First, the relocation of the town away from the water’s edge was fundamentally at odds with the preferences of the Inuit. Secondly, there are conflicting opinions about the merits of blocking the wind from the town; in most Arctic communities, wind is not an inconvenience, but is considered a part of life in the Arctic. But most importantly, is that it is hard to understand how even the most brilliant town planning or architecture project for Resolute could have succeeded without a much more ambitious effort to consider the complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.
The question of preservation of architecture in the Arctic is highly relevant today. With the challenges from climate change and global interest in the future of the Arctic, coupled with a long history of poor housing and infrastructure, developing new and more innovative approaches to architecture and urban design is long overdue in the Arctic. In Resolute, few people know of Erskine, his ambitious goals, or of the significance of his effort to try and create a new model for an Arctic town. And yet Erskine’s work– which I believe is one of the most significant design efforts to have been attempted in the Canadian Arctic – should form the starting point for developing new approaches. Erskine has been called the ultimate Arctic Architect (9). But what is next? Although preserving the legacy of his early experiment may seem a relative luxury and at odds with providing for badly needed social and housing services in Resolute, its significance as catalyst for creating a new and better model for town planning and architecture in Arctic Canada is unmatched.
We are at an important juncture where architecture and town planning in the north needs a new future. No longer will the imperatives of engineered solutions suffice as a proxy for architecture - through brute force or logistical competence – in order to solve technical problems and re-create the 70F degree home imported from the South. As Erskine attempted to do in Resolute, we need to fundamentally rethink the nature by which architecture in the Arctic operates at an environmental scale, at an urban scale, at a cultural scale, and at a social scale. For the Inuit, there is little desire to abandon modern amenities in order to return to living in snow houses or tents. One possible way forward is to teach the methods, techniques, and process of architecture and urban design to a generation of Inuit youth to enable them to design their own houses, schools, and communities; enabling self-determination through design may produce stronger and more sustainable communities. With the incredibly rich and long cultural and technological history the Inuit have developed in the Arctic, it may be a key to unlocking a new post-colonial era of environmentally and culturally innovative architecture.
(1) Michael Dear and Shirley Clark, “Planning a new Arctic town at Resolute”, Canadian Geographic, 97: 3 (1979), 46.
(2) Marcus, Alan. "Place with no dawn: A town’s evolution and Erskine’s arctic utopia." Architecture and the Canadian fabric (2011): 283-310.
(3) Ibid. p6-9.
(4) Culjat, Boris. Climate and the Built Environment in the North. No. 11. Kungl. Tekniska högskolan, 1975.
(5) What was remarkable about this design is that a similar typology of town planning was being developed for new socialist arctic cities in the Soviet Union, revealing an emergence of what could be considered a modernist northern vernacular. See: Jull, M. Toward a Northern Architecture: The Microrayon as Arctic Urban Prototype. JAE. 70:2, 2016; Jull. M. The Improbable City: Adaptations of an Arctic Metropolis, Polar Geography, (in press), 2017.
(6) Note that the newer buildings located next to the airport, many of which are operated by the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf Program, are larger prefabricated structures and can house 250 people. However during my visit the research base and town appeared to be completely separate and unrelated.
(7) This was conveyed to me by the local RCMP officer. In Iqaluit, multi-unit housing is more readily accepted, although individual houses are preferred.
(8) Marcus, Alan. "Place with no dawn: A town’s evolution and Erskine’s arctic utopia." Architecture and the Canadian fabric (2011): 283-310.
(9) P. Hemmersam, “Arctic Architectures,” Polar Record 52, no. 4 (2016): 412–422.
Matthew Jull PHD is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Principal of design practice KUTONOTUK, and co-Director of the Arctic Design Group with Leena Cho. His research focuses on the design of buildings and cities in the extreme and transforming environment of the Arctic, and is funded by the National Science Foundation, Graham Foundation, Rotch Foundation, and the Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation. His design practice KUTNOTUK is internationally recognized for their work on projects as as MoMA PS1, Helsinki Guggenheim Museum Competition, and Helsinki Central Library Competition. Jull received his MArch from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and his PhD in geophysics from Cambridge University; prior to joining UVA, he was an architect and project leader at OMA/Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, NL.
The author would like to thank the Graham Foundation and the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia for generous support for this research.