Placemaking in Antarctica

There are stations and bases scattered across Antarctica, spread very thin and mostly around the edges. These are places, with form and function: . I’m avoiding the word settlement because the Treaty doesn’t allow permanent settlement (which is a good thing).  
  The term placemaking gets bandied around in my day job. I take it to mean bringing together all sorts of people and techniques to create arenas for people to live and play and work. That encompasses design and architecture of course, but also transport, art, economic development, health care, vegetation, food, play spaces (for people of all ages), water and light. Most of all, it’s about how the people there want to live, and how ambitions in conflict might be brought to reconciliation. My safe cycle way is your loss of road space for your disability-necessary car.  

In many places at many times, some or all of these disciplines are missing, sacrificed to the god of economic necessity and short-term wins. (And some of that in turn is driven by democratic decision-making, which has its drawbacks but is better than the alternatives.) In Antarctica, though,many of those parameters are simply different. 

People who spend time there talk about the freedom of it. No money, no shops, no dependants. Just do the job. Your accommodation, food, lab equipment is there (even if it was you who spent frantic months preparing it). If shit happens at home, these days you may be in contact but your involvement is digital only and often patchy at that. (If you can’t deal with that, you shouldn’t be there.) Everyone in Antarctica is there with a purpose, there is no sauntering or downtime, especially during the summer. 

And the stations in Antarctica reflect their national cultures. Gabrielle Walker talks about this in Antarctica, remarking hoe the French and Italian bases eat much better. Apparently the Brazilians paint their base bright green, visible for miles, because that’s what they like. Antarctican is not a thing. The identity, the aesthetics, are a void. 

Stuff is key. Living in Antarctica depends on stuff: snow-cats and lab kit, orange survival suits, flags, fuel, planes. Big stuff reliant on awesome technologies brought south through complex logistics and staggering costs. In the 1990’s, considering the redesign of McMurdo, the first task was basic inventory. Just how much stuff was there? Was it still working, or could be made to work? If so, why bring down more stuff next year? Nobody knew, because the camp had simply accreted, grown year on year like a coral reef, but without the interdependent wildlife, or the beauty. 

 Photo of McMurdo base by Bob Kock of NSF 

Yet to the users of the stations it seems almost that the continent beyond their science isn’t there. If I am studying the penguin’s left foot, then the lichen it stands on is of no interest to me, let alone the rock beneath. For the frenetic summer season, collecting data against the clock with equipment breakdowns and unexpected accidents, working full-tilt in the finite light, Antarctica does not exist. In a very profound sense, they do not know where they are.

So stations in Antarctica need to meet some very rigorous and strange parameters. They need to be safe in that extraordinarily, hostile environment: on this point, there is much to be learnt from the indigenous peoples of the north, including the Russian cities of the Arctic Circle. They need to manage waste and energy, minimising their footprint. They must enable scientific study and facilitate cross disciplinary, cross-cultural enquiries. They express and facilitate transience: all their occupants will leave and be replaced in tidal rhythms, having other identities and homes to which they hope to return. All this they must do,and still hold in balance the delicate intricacies of the Treaty.

It occurs to me that refugee camps face many of the same challenges. Maybe, in addition to preparing for the grandiose concepts of space colonies, the learning from Antarctican habitats could be applied to the massive tent-cities and way-stations growing up in and Europe, Africa and Asia. Or is that level of cross-fertilisation too much to ask? It may be: Antarctican science is always at the hard end: big toys and number crunching. The psychology of pressure, leadership and isolation is considered a fit subject for the successors to the Heroic Age, but the squishy stuff of how people live together, their desire lines and their detritus, their sense of home and the aesthetics of life on the ice? Not so much, or at least not yet.

Last night I was lucky enough to have dinner with new friends, introduced via mutual old friends in the UK. In the comfortable warmth of a Santiago evening and then over ceviche cooked three different ways we talked of how places in Antarctica work. Tari Burgos, a planner, was part of the team which worked on the design of MacMurdo in the 1990’s. I am beyond grateful (think awed, inspired, delighted) for her generous discussion and insights. Any misunderstandings, incomprehension or mistakes are of course my own. 

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