A Entrance-Row Seat on the Spectacle of Ice

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This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions that focuses on the changing relationships between humans and the planet.

The Ilulissat Icefjord Center in Greenland is a 16,000 square meter building designed to cultivate respect for the beauty, meaning and vulnerability of the ice. The center, which overlooks an inland lake overlooking a fjord called Kangia in Greenlandic, is an observation post, an exhibition hall, a meeting place for locals, a workplace for climate scientists and a classroom for schoolchildren, all of which lie beneath an undulating roof that is also a promenade.

When it opens on July 3rd in the town of Ilulissat on the west coast, it will be the first of six planned centers to support tourism in Greenland, which is seen as essential to the area’s economic future in the face of growing unemployment. (The expected number of annual visitors after the Covid travel restrictions are lifted is 25,000.)

“Before, only heads of state and high-profile celebrities had the opportunity to experience the real story about the ice cream,” said Jesper Nygard, Realdania’s managing director. The Danish non-profit organization provided much of the funding for the $ 24.8 million project, which is also supported by the Greenland government and a local community. “Now it will be a larger group, but not a very large group because there is a sustainability agenda,” said Mr Nygard.

With 4,500 inhabitants (and almost as many dogs), Ilulissat is the third largest city in Greenland. Living there, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, means having a front row seat on an eternal ice parade.

A 1,200-square-mile glacier called Sermeq Kujalleq crouches at the end of the 60-kilometer Ilulissat Icefjord, stretching forward and retreating with the seasons, roaring as it sloughs off large chunks of itself. It is the fastest glacier in the world and moves an average of 44 meters per day. The icebergs it calves, some as tall as skyscrapers, bump along the fjord before entering Disko Bay and then drifting into Baffin Bay. (A descendant of an ancestor may have sunk the Titanic off the coast of Labrador, Canada.)

The global climate crisis is also made visible in this region. From 2002 to 2012, Sermeq Kujalleq retreated nine miles – in the past 99 years it had fallen back only 13 kilometers – and its meltwater is contributing to the rise of the world’s oceans. In 2004 UNESCO added the Ilulissat Icefjord to its World Heritage List.

By presenting the topic of ice in a sensitively designed structure, the Icefjord Center tries to resolve the potential conflict between environmental protection and the impact of tourism. The last thing a dangerously warming landscape needs, one could argue, is an increase in visitors, which increases CO2 emissions. But the center aims to offset this damage by educating the public about climate change, both in person and through internet-based programs.

Copenhagen-based architect Dorte Mandrup triumphed over prominent colleagues, including the Snohetta design group, Olafur Eliasson and Kengo Kuma, to win a competition to design the project in 2016. Ms. Mandrup compares the building to a snowy owl with outstretched wings, which is lightly set on the bedrock.

Though effortless to look at, the construction was anything but. In Greenland, the snow melts in May and returns in September, leaving a narrow window. There are no roads between cities; Transport is by boat, helicopter, snowmobile or dog sled. The sun never rises between late November and mid-January. And then there is the mandatory five-day quarantine for the architects who worked on site during the pandemic.

The building consists of 50 skeletal steel frames with geometries that change from triangles to squares and then back to triangles. Eighty percent of the steel is recycled and the structure is made from European oak. Ms. Mandrup and her team assembled a model of the building in a wind tunnel in Denmark to ensure that the aerodynamic shape prevents snowdrifts from piling up in strong westerly winds. (Potato flour was used as a substitute for 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 the amenities typical of museums around the world: an information desk, a souvenir shop, a café. The fascinating landscape presented by glass walls with motorized wooden slats that disappear into the ceiling is less typical.

The centerpiece is a 4,300 square meter exhibition space that presents “The Story of Ice,” a permanent multimedia installation that traces the science, anthropology and environmental impact of ice over hundreds of thousands of years. Designed by JAC Studios in Copenhagen, the exhibition includes ancient ice cores, a sound installation reminiscent of a river moving through an arctic landscape, and an impressive photo exhibition of the Greenland ice sheet.

Beyond the exhibition rooms there are administration and research offices where scientists from the field can come and view data. There is also an outdoor classroom and plans for distance education programs for children worldwide. The heated parts of the building (around three fifths of the total area) use recycled energy from the city’s hydropower plant to avoid net CO2 emissions. An outdoor fireplace warms a sheltered meeting point on the west terrace. And the rooftop promenade is a place to watch sunsets and the northern lights. If you descend four small steps at one end of the roof, you can take a hike on a path that leads to the ruins of an Inuit settlement.

The roof / promenade is just one example of how the sculptural building functions as a “gateway between civilization and the vast wilderness”, as Ms. Mandrup described it. She is a specialist in creating platforms for the exploration of sensitive habitats or “irreplaceable places”. Their 2017 Wadden Sea Center on the west coast of Denmark, one of three related projects, is a thatched shard on the edge of a tidal zone full of migratory birds. The Whale, a building under construction on the Norwegian island of Andoya, above the Arctic Circle, is a parabolic concrete shell with a long, horizontal view of mountains and whale-sweet waters.

The Icefjord Center also finds an urban echo in the Rooftop Park, which Ms. Mandrup designed for an Ikea store in Copenhagen. After its opening, it will offer a rare green space in an industrial district and connect to a new, kilometer-long pedestrian path.

“I think you have a responsibility in taking land away,” she said. Not every architect would do that.