Biodiversity of form has long been a beloved characteristic of the built environment. But of all existing building types, the igloo might top the list of endangered species. One must travel beyond the Arctic timberline, the southern border of the Inuit people and the northernmost latitude at which trees grow, to see a genuine igloo in use today. The centuries-old design of these energy-efficient snow houses demonstrates that with climate-responsive architecture, form and material are inseparable. And in case you haven't experienced an igloo firsthand, the outdoor Los Angeles gallery Materials & Applications (M&A) has created one for an installation titled Ukendt/Igloo, which opened April 1 and runs until Aug. 31.
Conceived by Danish artist Anja Franke, the structure explores the relationship between climate and building by reinventing a vernacular Arctic structure for a southern locale. Traditionally, igloos (“ukendt” is the Danish word for “igloo”) are built out of snow and covered with a layer of ice to form a natural barrier against sub-zero temperatures and wind chills. The force of the compressed snow provides exceptional structural stability, while the semicircular form maximizes interior space, where the temperature can rise to 61 degrees Fahrenheit from the dissipation of body heat alone. Replicating an igloo for a city such as Los Angeles, where it's rarely cooler than 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring and snow and ice are never in abundance, is an interesting proposition. For a structure in which material and climate go hand in hand, is it an exercise in futility?
Perhaps not. “The weather is changing all around us, which is why I've chosen the igloo as an icon,” says Franke. Though igloos come to us from the Inuit, who spread across Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland—the latter has been a Danish territory since the 1950s—snow abodes have a rich history in the Nordic regions of Scandinavia. But the one that sits in downtown L.A. is no frozen structure; instead, it's made of bamboo and felt. As Franke sees it, she's exported a historical dwelling type from her country and used it as an allegorical device for challenging cultural and architectural conventions.
Franke proposed the installation in 2004, after M&A's Jenna Didier and Oliver Hess discovered that, like them, the artist had been hosting public exhibitions in her backyard in Copenhagen. So the three teamed up and, with the help of architect John Southern (founder of design group Urban Operations Studio), lead fabricator Nick Blake (a specialist in building sets, stages, and animation rigs), and dozens of volunteers, crafted a double-domed igloo using hand-harvested bamboo from the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and 48-ounce industrial polyester felt donated by Monarch Textiles.
Initially, the team members entertained the possibility of putting a swamp cooler inside the igloo; the passive system would move cold, evaporated water through the interior, creating a reverse igloo that would be cooler on the inside. Instead, they focused on structural and material innovations, finding ways to construct Ukendt/Igloo's two domes with resources from the urban Southern California landscape.
They eventually settled on a tension bamboo frame for both domes, with the felt skin of the larger dome—which visitors can enter—woven into the structure by hand. The environmental effects are less dramatic, but the permeable structure does promote shade and allows for open-air circulation. And though the team had the privilege of learning the ancient craft of bamboo lashing as a solution for fastening the freshly picked stalks, in the end they found that duct tape was far easier to work with and just as efficient.
“It's just research,” says Didier, whose fountain-engineering firm, Fountainhead, sponsors the pocket-park installations that have, on occasion, stopped traffic on Silver Lake Boulevard. “We're trying to culture-jam by getting mainstream attention to very nonmainstream subjects,” she says, even if it means bringing an architectural conundrum—like a Southern California igloo—to life.
About Materials & Applications
Since its founding in 2002, Materials & Applications (M&A) has become a haven for architects, artists, and designers who want to work with their hands. Each year, the architectural and landscape research center and outdoor gallery—which sits in the front yard of founder and director Jenna Didier's and technical director Oliver Hess' Los Angeles home—hosts two installations, as well as workshops on traditional, sustainable, and novel building techniques and crafts.
Previous M&A exhibits have included 2006's Bubbles, which featured large, illuminated air bags that inflated and deflated in response to visitor interaction and was created by design firms Fox Lin, NONDesigns, and Brand Name Label, with help from Axel Kilian and Darius Miller; and 2005's Maximilian's Schell, a tensile matrix by Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues that resembled a vortex and was inspired by actor Maximilian Schell's portrayal of Dr. Reinhardt in the 1979 film The Black Hole.
To learn more about M&A, its focus, and its previous installations and workshops, go to www.emanate.org.