Rich in resources, the Barents Sea is a hive of economic activity documented in this exemplary student research anthology
‘Do pirates pray?’ wondered Professor Harry Gugger on one of his half-asleep train trips from Basel to the EPFL in Lausanne. He’d read about piracy during one of his previous daily trips, and it was on his mind. The ex-H&dM project architect resolved to research it further. Rather than being the preserve of no-hopers and terrorists, it later transpired, most modern piracy was motivated by financial gain. For many, it was a day job. This was news to Gugger. It started him and his students at the EPFL-affiliated Laboratoire Bâle on a journey which would take them to the Arctic Circle. Their research is recorded in this compelling 156pp publication from Park Books, Barents Lessons: Teaching and Research in Architecture.
The seas become a charged territory for a trans-discipline research study
Gugger’s observation: that the seas are not just areas to be traversed, but are resource-rich areas of economic activity in themselves, may well be more revelatory to someone who grew up in a land-locked nation than to any island dweller familiar with tales of Vikings, Columbus and Drake. But like many simple observations, following through on its logic is rewarding. And that is what Gugger’s gang did. The group rejected the South China Seas, the Persian Gulf and the North Sea as possible sites of research. In doing so they arrived at the hypothesis that the sea is an urbanized territory. ETHZ Studio’s definition borrows from Henri Lefervre’s – fairly expansive – definition of urbanity: the interaction of borders, networks and difference. Add into the mix a large degree of geopolitical rivalry and competition over routes and resources, and the seas become a charged territory for a trans-discipline research study.
The group decided on The Barents Sea, which the coasts of Norway, Russia, Greenland and Iceland look out onto. It’s one of Europe’s last large, clean marine ecosystems, and a valuable source of fish, oil and gas for Russia and Norway. Thinning of the ice sheet and more powerful icebreakers – 50,000horsepower engines on ships with specially designed hulls can open shipping corridors in 3m-thick sea ice at a constant speed of 35km/h – have also raised the possibility of the Northern Sea Route being open all year.
This will enable huge savings in time (22.5 days to travel from Kirkenes, Norway to Lianyungan, China versus 40 days via the Suez Canal) and increase traffic dramatically. The paper raises questions about the effect this increase could have on the local Sami, indigenous reindeer herding population, and the environment: spills tend to accompany increased oil transit. And though the number of professionals who navigate the world’s oceans is relatively small the seas have come to host the debris of everyman.
An appendix explains the teaching approach: ‘merging analytical research methodologies with creative design, developing investigative processes for urban planning and architecture.’ Accordingly, the book’s first section ‘Analysis’ is filled with neat infographics exploring the transport, economic and geographic factors of the site; from the particular geometry of an ice-breaking ship’s hull to Norway’s position in world oil exports (third, between Russia and the Emirates, Saudi Arabia in first place).
‘Trip’ records the 10-day field trip in a mix of candid photos (husky dogs, fishermen) and more formal typological studies (the Bechers in colour, and colder), with model proposals for a railway station; fishermen’s hall and shipyard-turned-hotel in ‘Projects’. The context is compelling, the work coherent and the presentation a text book example of how to present research.
Planning the infrastructure for the world’s oceans will lead to better quality
While finishing the project, Gugger read a report in The Guardian recording NASA data which showed 97 per cent of Greenland’s ice sheet was melting between 8-12 July, in comparison to the 40 per cent normal at that time of the year. The researchers rechecked the data, assuming that such significant increase must only come from faulty figures. It hadn’t. Further justifying the choice of study, Gugger contends that climate change means that we will all live in more extreme environments in the future, making this collection invaluable.
His research advocates an approach of cautious engagement with building, in which infrastructure is the preserve not just of engineers but also architects, citing Rino Tami’s involvement in the Swiss Gotthard, ‘a motorway, planned by architects… better incorporated into the landscape and therefore more sustainable: the involvement of architects in planning the infrastructure required for the world’s oceans will also lead to better quality.’
Read: Barents Lessons - Teaching and Research in Architecture, by Harry Gugger, Nancy Couling, Aurelie Blanchard. Park Books, 156pp
Exploring the Barents Sea: How to document a research project