Student Works: Arctic-tecture for the Global Commons

With the aim of providing a global architecture in the world’s largest terra incognita, emerges recent MIT graduate Andrea Brennen's M.Arch thesis: Arctic-tecture for the Global Commons. Brennen’s proposal centers on the mysterious and remote continent of Antarctica – where architecture and infrastructure are difficult to find. Antarctica has been in the news as of late – particularly because it contains sixty-five percent of the world’s fresh water reserves, and more importantly because they are quickly melting.

Brennen’s thesis, however, finds something else intriguing about Antarctica – its ambiguous ownership. With no indigenous population (except for scientists), Antarctica is legally designated as a Global Commons, residing under sovereign jurisdiction. Governments can demonstrate ‘substantial interest’ (and therefore gain voting power) by operating a scientific research facility in Antarctica. Therefore, Architecture becomes the mode for governments to lay claim on the Global Commons.

Operating in the spirit of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog -- a 1970s counterculture bible for “whole systems” thinking -- this project examines Antarctica as a testing ground for an expanded mode of architecture. Antarctica, with its extreme environment, scientific value, and legal status as a Global Commons, is a site that cannot be understood in any way other than through its relationship to a larger global environmental system. This reality, when combined with the continent’s mystique, creates an unparalleled opportunity for architectural innovation.

Architecture, or Artic-tecture takes the form of several programmes in dire need in Antarctica – particularly tourism and a biological vault. Brennen uses the concept of offset to ensure a symbiotic programmatic relationship between all parties. A mega-bio vault provides secure storage for global specimens, that is partly funded by tourism. Inspired by the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway, Brennen’s bestows the following tasks on her vault:

This is a last-resort effort to protect global food sources from a range of threats such as war, natural disasters, or agricultural mismanagement. Unlike the Norwegian vault, it will not be controlled by a national government, but rather, will be located in the Global Commons.

The program is organized by the largest constraint in Antarctica – temperature. Warmer programmes are nested within cooler ones that are wrapped in nested inflatables. The inflatables are both easy to ship to the remote site, and use the simplicity of air to provide a high insulation value. Further, local materials – particularly snow and ice – enrich the Arctic-tectural material palette. Foundations of compacted ice support the large trusses, which use snow fins loaded with precipitating snow as a counterweight. The biological vault is simply cynlindrical shelves that slot into holes drilled into the compacted ice floor.

As resources become increasingly precious, Andrea’s proposal forecasts how minimal elements can create rich spaces. You can see more of Arctic-tecture and other work and research by Andrea here.

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