Lockhart Lake truck stop is on the way to the Ekati diamond mine, about 120 miles south of the Arctic circle.
Courtesy Jason Pineau Lockhart Lake truck stop is on the way to the Ekati diamond mine, about 120 miles south of the Arctic circle.

With the early arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere, our attention is once again drawn to the high Arctic.The North now serves as the bellwether for global warming, as scientists regularly observe the most dramatic climate changes there. According to the Climate News Network, some species of plants in Greenland are blooming nearly one month earlier than they did a decade ago. The increased attention to a region such as Northern Canada is both negative and positive: as climate researchers are concerned with the imminent “carbon bomb” posed by the release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost, prospectors are attracted by the potential to harvest resources in a more conducive environment. Indeed, current plans indicate that intensified development of the North is all but guaranteed, which raises a question: How much do architects and planners really know about it?

Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory (Actar, 2017) aims to address this knowledge gap. The new book by architects Lola Sheppard and Mason White of Toronto–based firm Lateral Office is a compendium of useful information about Canada’s high Arctic regions. Structured like a research manual for architects considering future opportunities in this context, the visually immersive tome is organized into five sections: urbanism, architecture, mobility, monitoring, and resources. A primer that consolidates the regional expertise of established writers, geographers, historians, and architects in both textual and graphical from, Many Norths might as well be titled Two Norths, given its documentation of the perennial conflict between Arctic Canada’s aboriginal populations and its modern colonizers. The contrast in spatial practices between these two cultures highlights the unfortunate history of this circumpolar region—and reveals the challenges of determining optimal approaches for Northern design and construction.

The chapter on urbanism provides a case in point. As the authors claim, the term “urbanism” has inspired debate, given the relatively sparse populations of the Canadian North; yet settlements such as Inqaluit and Yellowknife are growing rapidly and increasingly facing similar problems and opportunities to their southern counterparts. Considering such places as urban anticipates their seemingly inevitable rise as polar cities. However, it also reveals the distinction between pre- and post-20th century development.

For millennia, the Canadian Arctic was inhabited by semi-nomadic peoples whose itinerant behaviors were motivated by continual shifts in climate and the movements of migratory animals. The vast expanse of ice that covers water bodies provides a comprehensive—albeit transient and fickle—alternative ground plane for much of the year, thus encouraging mobility and connectivity. Indeed, building any permanent structure on permafrost presents a significant challenge, given that heat transfer leads to ground subsidence. For this reason, the modern conurbations of suburban dwellings on stilts—with water and sewer piping located in above-ground “utilidoors” to prevent freezing—seem entirely incongruous to both the culture and climate of the high North.

Looking for mussels under the ice after the tide has gone out, Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec.
Photo by Patrice Halley Looking for mussels under the ice after the tide has gone out, Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec.

A closer look at polar architecture of indigenous peoples enhances this contrast. As Sheppard and White document, Inuit building practices have long been attuned to variations in season, food sources, and sociocultural traditions. Although geographic variations exist, most communities have constructed three types of temporary dwellings: snow houses (igloos) in winter, tents made from animal skins and whale bones or driftwood in summer, and qarmaq—a more insulated version of the tent—during spring and autumn. Winter locations are more nomadic, located near the ice floe edge, enabling closer proximity to food sources, whereas summer locations are sited on land with increased clustering to encourage social interaction.

By comparison, the early, “permanent” housing typologies imported by the Canadian government—such as the poorly insulated plywood “matchbox house” and awkward prefabricated rigid frame house—demonstrated a wasteful, ineffectual use of resources and a lack of sensitivity to site. The widespread deployment of these structures, in conjunction with governmental policies requiring year-round settlement, represents the use of architecture as a forceful tool of “internal colonialism.” “In the end, this meant a tremendous disruption to the Inuit way of life,” said historian P. Whitney Lackenbauer in an interview with the authors. “The population abruptly shifted from one that had followed a seasonal pattern for centuries to one where, within the span of a single decade, almost all families had moved into permanent settlements.”

To many readers, this inconvenient history will seem like old news. Since the 1960s, the Inuit have been more or less entrenched in year-round settlements; meanwhile, the combination of the global demand for resources and a warming climate promises much further “internal colonialism”—or development—of the Canadian Arctic. Mining for oil and mineral deposits alone continues to represent a fundamental driver for increased building in the high North. According to the authors, “more than 22 major sites across Nunavut and Northwest Territories are gearing up for production; of the five in operation, three have been dedicated to diamond extraction since 1998.” Mineral harvesting presents a planning conundrum: Is it preferable to pursue a “fly in–fly out” strategy of impermanent development at the risk of divesting in local communities, or to establish a long-term settlement susceptible to the economic volatility of single-resource dependence?

Lateral Office is run by Lola Sheppard and Mason White
Photo by George Qua-Enoo Lateral Office is run by Lola Sheppard and Mason White

For the Inuit, the impermanence of an extraction-based economy has thus replaced seasonal transience as a predominant concern—an artificial milieu they have been ill-equipped to address. If there is a resounding message conveyed by Many Norths, it is the fragility of existence in the high Arctic and the appropriateness of centuries-old Inuit approaches for addressing recurring environmental instability. Although it is unrealistic to presume that aboriginal life could return to its premodern state, it is no less practical to expect that current approaches to “tame the Arctic” with unsuitable building models will succeed. Thus it is surprising that the efforts to modernize the North have been largely devoid of purposefully adaptable and transitory solutions.

By interrogating the incongruity of enforced spatial practices in the Canadian Arctic, Many Norths projects unsettling questions onto the domineering enterprises of the industrialized world. Although Sheppard and White refrain from making their own design proposals in the book, they present a clear case for alternative strategies. “The conditions of the North demand that architects and planners be more inclusive about development’s relationship to the environment and cultural practices,” they write. “Given the economic hardships and highly dispersed communities, the region demands that all spatial practitioners, especially architects, engineers, and planners, consider design within the wider physical, cultural, and logistical context of the Canadian Arctic.”