The Architecture of Polar Ice Floes

[Image: Trapped in ice].

Back in January 2008, a ship called Tara unlocked from the polar ice near Greenland; it had been frozen in the Arctic floes for a year and four months, repeating the journey of the Fram, a Norwegian ship that once drifted across the polar seas, frozen solid in the ice fields, back in 1896.

In both cases, the ships temporarily became buildings, works of architecture wed flush with the landscape surrounding them.

[Images: Photos via Jules Verne Adventures].

As reported two winters ago in the Times:
    Visitors to the North Pole in the past 15 months might have happened upon a peculiar sight: a ship, high and dry on the ice pack, her masts upright against the flaming aurora borealis, her bow pointing over the ice sheet, as if sailing on a sea of snow. They might have thought it a polar mirage.
It was, however, the Tara, a mobile building of the Arctic.

In a description so strange I have trouble visualizing it, we read about a "pressure ridge" that moved toward the boat at "super-slow" speeds, threatening everyone on board with destruction:
    There was another scare that winter with a “pressure ridge” caused by colliding plates of ice advancing towards the boat. “It was like a frozen wave, moving in super-slow motion—about a centimeter a second,” said [a crew member]. “At one stage we attacked it with picks and chainsaws, but there was no way we could stop it.” It leant over the boat, then suddenly it stopped by itself and “we were released from the pinch,” said [the crew member].
When landscapes attack.

[Image: Map of the Arctic ice routes that brought ships across the sea, courtesy of New Scientist].

But what interests me here is the idea that you could build one thing—a ship—that only becomes what it's really meant to be—a building—when the circumstances it's surrounded by undergo a phase change (here, water turning into ice).

The ship's hull was specifically designed for this, we read in New Scientist; it was "broad, smooth and round so that, rather than being crushed like an egg, the boat would pop up like an olive stone squeezed between finger and thumb, and sit on top of the pack ice. It also featured a lifting centerboard instead of a fixed keel, and removable propellers and rudders. These precautions worked: Tara suffered just a small dent at the stern, and another stretching a metre or so along the hull."

What might the atmospheric equivalent of this be? Perhaps a planetary probe dropped into the skies of Titan or Enceladus, awaiting some strange aerial phase change to occur on all sides?

And, speaking of other planets, could you ever encounter such extraordinary air pressure—on a gas giant, say—such that solid objects simply become trapped in place, unable to fall any further? The atmosphere beneath them is denser than the metal they are made from.

Like machine-fossils buried transparently in air—or like Arctic ships locked in ice—NASA probes would gradually decay, compressed by nothing but air, under deformational pressures lasting tens of millions of years. Aerial tectonics. Slow weather. Sky glacier.

(Enceladus link via @pruned).

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Anonymous Marilyn Terrell said...

Ah, Fridtjof Nansen and his indefatigable Fram ("Forward"), what a great story! It seemed like a lunatic idea in 1983: to set sail in order to become deliberately locked in the Arctic ice, in the hopes of reaching the North Pole via the strong east-west current. And yes, his ship became a building, frozen in the Arctic for three years. For such an expedition, Nansen needed the strongest wooden vessel ever constructed. According to an article in National Geographic:
"in 1891 Nansen hired a brilliant Norwegian naval architect of Scottish descent named Colin Archer to do just that. Archer's design featured a curiously rounded hull that lacked a pronounced keel, and wells that allowed the rudder and propeller to be hauled up to safety in the event of crushing ice. The hold of the ship was braced with mighty timbers. To keep the explorers warm, Nansen insulated his vessel with thick felt, reindeer hair, cork shavings, and tar. To fight off the perpet­ual blackness of the polar night, a windmill was installed to run electric arc lamps. Belowdecks were a cozy saloon decorated with carved dragon's heads and a library that Nansen stocked with some 600 carefully chosen volumes."

Here's one of the photos he took during the winter of 1893 when the Fram was locked in the ice; you can see the windmill he installed on deck to provided electricity:

From the National Geographic story: "The men ate well in the bright, warm saloon—where an automatic organ played through the long Arctic nights and the electric lamps, Nansen wrote, 'acted on our spirits like a draught of good wine.' The men published their own newspaper, organized ski outings on the ice for exercise, and took endless soundings and other measurements. Boredom was a constant companion—one crewman cursed 'the monastic life we lead in this dead zone'—but Nansen's men did not suffer. 'I myself,' he wrote, 'have certainly never lived a more sybaritic life.'"

Although he failed to reach the Pole, Nansen journeyed farther north (on foot, when the ship wouldn't go farther) than any human being in the previous 400 years of polar exploration, and not a single member of his crew was lost. He went on to write a groundbreaking paper on the nature of the central nervous system, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work as a League of Nations high commissioner helping repatriate prisoners of war in Turkey and Russia following World War I.

The National Geographic story here:

...with more photos by Nansen:

February 28, 2010 3:11 PM  
Blogger suttonhoo said...

Great post. For a visceral account of a sailing ship caught in Antarctic ice see Caroline Alexander's telling of the Shackleton Expedition.

Film footage exists of the moment at which the Endurance -- after many months -- was finally crushed by the pressure of the ice. I saw it nearly a decade ago at Field Museum exhibition, but am not finding it after a few quick queries online.

February 28, 2010 5:19 PM  
Blogger richard said...

I have an absolutely sincere and open question, which is not intended in any way to lead to a trap or "gotcha," regarding your definition of "building."

In what sense do the ships become buildings on being trapped in ice? Why are they not buildings beforehand (floating, sailing ones)? I ask this as I complete my PhD dissertation in architectural history on the ships of the Dutch East India Company as architectural productions or, if you prefer, parts of the built environment.

I've been asked many times whether the ships I study are really architecture and I always reply "of course: people lived in them, they were built as houses, warehouses, barracks, hospitals and prisons, apart from as methods of transport. Architectural treatises of the 16th century frequently included sections on shipbuilding. Ships have always been architecture." And then my interlocutors tend to shrug and say, "OK..." So I would really like to understand on what basis you say the ships are not buildings until they're frozen in a solid context - what you see as the fundamental distinction and why. And if you'd be willing, I'd like to be able to quote you. Even if you're not willing to be quoted, I'd like to know, off the record.

Yours hopefully

Richard Guy

February 28, 2010 10:18 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Marilyn and suttonhoo, thanks for the great links and context.

Richard, I'm reminded of Norman Foster's reply to the question of what building he considered the most significant of the last few decades—he said the 747 airplane. I definitely agree with you that ships are architectural, and that they are buildings on the waves; and I didn't mean to imply with this post that mobility, or seaworthiness, somehow disqualify something from being "architecture." There are mobile buildings; there are buildings in the air; there are buildings in space.

I suppose a good example of what I meant here is when J.G. Ballard was asked—and I apologize for relying on other people's responses in my response to your question—what the best novel of the 20th century was, or something like that, and he said, if I'm not mistaken, the Warren Commission Report.

Perhaps I should have referred to the line between an aquatically mobile construction and a terrestrially grounded one, where the terrestriality in question is actually itself a mobile ice field...

Your dissertation sounds fascinating, by the way; I'd love to read more about it.

February 28, 2010 10:29 PM  
Blogger richard said...

thank you - I'd be happy to send something when I have a draft together if you're interested.

I think there might be some philosophical objection to regarding ships as architecture (or buildings), so if anything comes to mind I'd love to know about it. "That which changes land-use" seems to be the worst of all definitions for my purposes: both too broad to have analytical punch and exclusive in exactly the wrong way.

February 28, 2010 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Tim Maly said...

Thinking here about the artificial island you posted about that's build from rocks and the husks of ships. Thinking about floating restaurants and the gambling riverboats that never leave dock.

Thinking about the concrete tents, where the phase change is in the material of the structure itself, "add water to make this permanent".

Thinking about the many, many, many science fiction and fantasy scenarios where what was once thought to be an ancient temple turns out to be a fully operational starship, waiting for the right people to come along and bring it back to life.

March 01, 2010 9:31 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

Amundsen tried the whole "ship deliberately frozen in the ice" trick with his ship the "Maud". Didn't work quite as well. But there was a lot of scientific research done. A lot of the research was lost when two guys tried went on a foot journey. (To hike out with it? I can't remember.) But the data was later found by a Russian scientist and returned.

March 01, 2010 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the profession of designers define the category for either ships or buildings, Naval Architect would impute some affinities between the two as "architect" is common to both.
taking this notion the other direction; towards geologic timescales if you designed a sufficiently robust structure and sited it in areas of potential lava flows, once it is "floating" in a river or sea of magma does it then become a ship?

March 01, 2010 6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we define architecture as the purposeful design of space (traditionally physical, but recently social and informational), then a ship, a house, an airplane, a mine, and a park all have that underlying connection; all are forms of architecture. At first I too thought the post was implying the ship was not previously a work of architecture until rendered fixed, but the wording used is very specific, and I think, very true. The space transforms from SHIP to BUILDING as the surrounding environment changes phase; from mobile space in liquid to fixed space in a solid.

That strikes me as an interesting topic of study and experiment; architecture which is designed specifically to react / act in a radically changing environment.

@ Tim Maley - I like the idea of the materials of the building itself undergoing phase change. The mechanism of change is internal in this case, not external. If only the concrete tents were a two way street, and you could revert them back to a liquid state. We'll need some help from our brothers in material sciences for that.

Then again, perhaps the use of water as a building material (instead of decorative or purely functional) could bridge the external/internal mechanism of phase change.

March 02, 2010 10:10 PM  
Blogger richard said...

50 more buildings have just undergone phase changes (phased in?) in the Baltic. Some are colliding, very slowly but with a good deal of force.

Maybe someone else has made this point, but on the right timescale, buildings in many parts of the world are moving relative to one another. Streeterville in Chicago provides another sort of landscape coagulation around ships and buildings. I think there's a rich topic here.

I'd probably have to change my conceptual framework to take advantage of it, though.

March 05, 2010 1:52 PM  

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