More than a mobile Antarctic research centre, Hugh Broughton Architects’ Halley VI provides for the physical, social and emotional needs
of its resident scientists, writes Ruth Slavid. Photography by James Morris
If there is a faint sense of anti-climax surrounding the completion of the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, it is because we have seen it for so long. The finished building, with its string of bright blue modules and a central one in red, looks very much like the visuals in the competition-winning design that Hugh Broughton Architects and engineer Faber Maunsell (now AECOM) produced in 2004.
With no adjoining buildings, roads or vegetation - not even any topography - there is little to differentiate the finished building from the CGI, although the eagle-eyed will spot that there are fewer modules and that the central one has shrunk. And in contrast to most important new buildings, there will not be a pilgrimage by the architecturally interested. This is one of the most inaccessible buildings in the world, even in the relatively clement Antarctic summer. In the winter it is cut off altogether.
That is one of the reasons why this building is such a considerable achievement. In one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the British have built not just a shelter, but a piece of architecture. The technical requirements of the building could easily have not only dominated the thinking, but excluded all other considerations. This is one of the few buildings in the world that is, in a phrase that Broughton likes to use, ‘infra-free’. It has to be entirely self-supporting, providing its own power, water and waste disposal. Even food can only come in during the summer.
The climate is brutal. The average minimum temperature during the year is below -50°C. The highest temperature reached in an average year is less than 5°C. For three months of the year there is total darkness. The average snowfall of one metre per year does not melt, but builds up. Being buried by snow has been one of the problems for Halley VI’s predecessors.
Moreover, the station is not actually located on the continent mainland, but on a massive sheet of ice called the Brunt Ice Shelf. This sheet is moving slowly towards the sea. As it approaches and thins, large sections calve or break off. So even if the station is not buried by snow, its lifespan in a specific location is limited.
Why would anybody put a research station in such an inhospitable place? The answer is simple: it is very good for science. As Dr Anna Jones of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) explains: ‘It is geographically ideal.’ Being remote from man-made equipment makes it possible to take sensitive measurements. And its position near the magnetic south pole means that it is one of the places where magnetically charged particles come to earth. This makes it possible to monitor what is happening at a range of levels in the atmosphere. ‘It is a very special place at a practical scientific level,’ says Jones.
Broughton and AECOM’s solution deals with both the physical problems and the unique social situation in imaginative ways. The buildings are mounted on skis which means that over their life time they can be moved back inland as the ice shelf carries them towards the sea. In the short term, the skis are part of a system for lifting the station and removing the snow beneath. Its predecessor, Halley V had a means for doing this, but it was labour-intensive. The operation required eight to 10 additional steel erectors, took the entire summer and on some days necessitated the help of 50 people, which the station had to support, making the procedure very expensive.
Broughton and AECOM won a multi-stage RIBA competition that BAS ran once it decided that it wanted a new building and new thinking. Karl Tuplin, a civil engineer who was brought in to run the project for BAS, says: ‘BAS didn’t know what it wanted in terms of a building. It wanted to go to industry to see what it could do.’ The competition entries were narrowed down to six and then to three. A representative from each of >> the three finalists was taken to Halley to learn more. ‘What Hugh did more than anyone,’ says Tuplin, ‘was to look at what we do from the moment the ship arrives. He designed the building around what we actually do.’
BAS also wanted ‘an iconic building’, which it got. ‘When you see Halley VI for the first time it is astonishing,’ Tuplin says. ‘You think you are in a science fiction video.’ Although the numbers of people seeing it in the flesh are tiny, it will be on photos and videos - it has already been on stamps.
Much of Broughton’s concern was about what it was actually like to live at the station. Scientists and support staff are no longer as cut off as they once were, with email and telephone links to the outside world and (slow) internet connections. But this could potentially make the hothouse atmosphere worse, with people able to withdraw to their bedrooms - singles in the winter, shared in the summer. At the same time, while people still choose to go largely for the excitement of the Antarctic, the days of groups of men roughing it have long gone.
The staff (now both men and women) need a home where they can work comfortably and effectively. Broughton looked particularly at creating social spaces that allowed both traditional rowdy interaction and quieter contemplation. The central social module they created was a long way away from the scruffy student common room feeling of its predecessor. Broughton also laid out spaces in the corridors where people could stop and chat, breaking up the feeling of being in a long train of buildings - an alignment that was dictated by the geometry of snow deposition.
Does it work? Ian Sissons, in charge of communications technology at Halley, says: ‘The living accommodation is much better, my office is much better, I now have two dedicated equipment rooms and a nice view.’ Sissons particularly loves the double-height space in the central module: ‘It is very open and light, it is a nice place to relax.’ Ant Dubber praises the more generous gym and ‘nice perimeter for a run or a walk.’ He enjoys looking at the hoar frost on the exterior and how its appearance changes with the light. As a chef, Dubber did have minor quibbles about the kitchen layout (the kitchen shrank to cut costs), but expects to get used to it. Pat Bower, the winter base commander, praises the bedrooms, saying: ‘They are a bit too comfortable. It can be difficult to get out of bed.’ There are, however, special daylight lamps to help wake gently.
Construction was an amazing feat, with all tools having to be taken out, and Tuplin having to calculate in advance how many sausages would be needed for the workers’ morning snacks. While Broughton examined the way that people lived and wanted to live, AECOM’s Peter Ayres worked out the details of hydraulic legs and how to tow modules. A project like this is a combination of meticulous planning and improvisation.
Technical innovations aside, for Ayres the best achievement has been the collaboration between his giant firm and Broughton’s small one. It has resulted in a building that should make life much better for people doing important work in unique conditions.