Ben Tolsky - a digital portfolio
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Life During Wartime: Buckminster Fuller and Archigram on the Frozen Continent

   Buckminster Fuller had a very unique view of how the world worked and how it could be saved. He was way ahead of his time in his thoughts on conservation and on world politics. Likewise, the Archigram group proposed revolutionary new ideas that could only ever work on paper. They too were way ahead of their time, and in many ways still way ahead of our time. Yet both Fuller and Archigram came from very different times and places and took very different approaches to their designs. While both are considered impractical visionaries, there is a land where their ideas have not only come to fruition, but are indeed the only way of life. It is in Antarctica where modular light weight construction is not just a method of building, but the only method of building. On the final frontier of exploration and in the most extreme environments, the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Archigram thrive. There is no doubt to this being true, but only a question of why they would have designed in a way that is only suitable for the most extreme of places.

   Buckminster Fuller was not an architect, at least not technically, but he was a visionary. In fact, one of his very first visions was not of a building, but of a planet. In his Lightful drawing he does not just show a single building design, he instead shows a single planet that has been conquered by a number of soaring and light weight objects. He even includes a very large structure standing on Antarctica. This idea quickly evolves into the 4D Lightful Tower. A tower that soars 10 stories high but weighs the same as a single family house, can be erected in a single day, and is entirely self sufficient. With these specifications the great benefit of it is that it can be placed anywhere with minimal effort. From here he gradually evolved his ideas into single family homes such as the Dymaxion House, Wichita House, and eventually the Standard of Living Package. In these cases he was still looking at easily assembled modular fabrication that can go anywhere, but just like the 4D Tower, wound up going nowhere.

   Fuller’s one real success was the geodesic dome. This incredibly strong, light weight, mathematical structures were once again capable of going anywhere and that is exactly what they did. Most interesting is their use in the Arctic Circle along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. A series of radar stations stretching across Northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland that were built in the late 1950’s as a defense against a Soviet attack coming over the Arctic Circle. The radomes, which are the housing for the antennas in a radar system, were built primarily as geodesic domes that were more than capable of resisting the extreme weather in the Arctic. In addition to these geodesic domes in the Arctic, there are a large number of domes also built at research stations in Antarctica, with one of the largest and most famous being the one at America’s Amundsen-Scott Base located at the South Pole. However, the geodesic dome never caught on as a traditional building form, because of its geometry it was very difficult to occupy, and since it was only an outer shell, it still needed an additional sub-structure inside of it. This is most clearly visible in the American Pavilion at the Montreal Expo 67 where the dome is inhabited by large sub-structure to support the function of the pavilion, as well as in Fuller’s Standard of Living Package where the standard shipping container is turned into the sub-structure.

   If Buckminster Fuller’s ambitions could be viewed as down to Earth, then Archigram’s ambitions were high in the sky. Completely bored with the architectural situation of London at the start of the 1960’s, Archigram tried to shake it all up with wild proposals about a new way of living. Their ideas ranged from modular pod living to items that allowed for transient lifestyles. But unlike Buckminster Fuller who saw his geodesic dome get off the ground, Archigram’s ideas never left the paper they were printed on. Obsessed with technology and fascinated with NASA, from 1961 until 1974 Archigram produced some of the most radical ideas such as Peter Cook’s Plug In City, Warren Chalk’s Capsule, Ron Herron’s Walking City, Mike Webb’s Cushicle, and David Greene’s Logplug/Rokplug. Warren Chalk even went as far to redefine Buckminster Fuller’s usage of helicopters as a means for transporting housing into becoming the housing itself in his Flying House project. And while their ideas may have been way out there, their Living 1990 project was actually a very good prediction for how we currently live in the 2000’s. However, unlike the self-taught Buckminster Fuller, the young men that composed Archigram were all highly educated and proficient architects.

   While Archigram’s projects never left paper, their influence is visible in a select group of built projects. Perhaps the most interesting is the Futuro House, a modular house designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968. The house, which closely resembled a UFO (or at least how we imagine a UFO), was commissioned as a ski hut, but designed as a new easily reproducible housing type. The house was a round plastic construction with an elliptical profile that sat on stilts. Made of 16 light weight pieces that get bolted together, the house could easily be assembled by hand in remote areas, or airlifted in by helicopter. Plans were to mass-produce these houses and send them all around the world. Entire communities would be constructed of Futuros, and there was even a proposal for a Futuro Hotel where these houses would be plugged into a central circulation structure and become the guest rooms of the hotel, much like the Plug In City or Kisho Kurokawa’s actually built Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The house received plenty of media coverage with celebrities attending events where the house was displayed and even an article on the house appearing in Playboy Magazine the week that Apollo 11 made its moon landing. The company producing the Futuro even came out with a line of modular plastic houses as that time, although none of the other houses received the same amount of attention as the Futuro. However, these plans were all halted by the 1973 Oil Crisis when an unstable economy, combined with the price and unavailability of oil, made it impossible to mass produce plastic housing. Of course these houses were also fairly expensive given their size, contained very little storage space, and had a style that screamed 60’s, so it is quite possible that even without the oil crisis it might have only been a fad. In the end, only 96 Futuro houses were built and they did manage to get distributed all around the globe, including at least four of which have found their way to Macquarie Island and two other Australian Antarctic Islands where they are now known as Googie Huts and are extremely popular amongst the researchers living in them.

   Another project along these lines and specifically designed for extreme environments was the Frei Otto and Kenzo Tange directed City in the Arctic created at the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart in 1971. While this was a theoretical project, it was also a realistic project in solving how to create a city in frigid environments. While the project had no site, it was intended for Northern Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia but also with applications in parts of Greenland and Antarctica. The thought was that because of the rich reserves of resources in these polar areas, that within twelve years of this project a city like this would become a reality. Well aware of the Buckminster Fuller project Dome Over Manhattan from 1960, what Frei Otto proposed was a flat dome that would span 1.25 miles in diameter and reach a height of 787 feet. The idea was that this dome could be constructed first flat on the ground, and then once it was inflated regular construction could commence. The dome would be supported entirely by the air used to inflate it. The city would be powered by a nuclear power plant whose excess heat could be used to keep a nearby harbor free of ice and to keep temperatures inside the dome above freezing. With the dome in place a normal city with normal structures would be able to be built as they will no longer have to stand up against the harsh environment. In the winter an electric sun would move across the sky during the day, while in the summer movable sails could block the sun at night.

   While the Futuro House never really took off as expected, and the Arctic City was an idea that never came to fruition, there are a large number of examples in Antarctica that appear to pay homage to Buckminster Fuller and Archigram. The idea of modular pod structures is extremely prevalent across the continent and particularly at Australian bases. While the continents newest base, Belgium’s recently completed Princess Elisabeth Station designed by Johan Berte, is also its first zero-energy base and bears similarity to Fuller’s Dymaxion House. And still under construction is England’s Halley VI Research Station designed by Hugh Broughton, which looks like it could have come right out of the pages of an Archigram publication.

   Of all the pod structures that exist in Antarctica, the Apple Huts, or more specifically Igloo Satellite Cabins designed by Malcolm Wallhead, are the most popular and have been used by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) since 1982. They are commercially available as well. Similar to Futuros, the fiberglass Apple Huts are made of eight modular pieces to create the sphere and four pieces used to create the floor that all get bolted together. They can also be expanded with modular cylindrical pieces to any size desired. They can easily be transported by helicopter or even snowmobile to remote Antarctic locations and can comfortably house two people but can shelter as many as fifteen people in emergency situations. These small huts can be assembled by two people in as little as an hour and a half. Revised over the years and now produced by Penguin Composites in Tasmania, as of 2008 the AAD has ordered 49 of these Apple Huts with the original one still in use as a storage hut, with 159 produced overall for eighteen different countries, most of which are used in Antarctica.

   Much like Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Units, another popular hut used by the AAD for accommodation are the Tank Huts, which are simply converted cistern tanks with added insulation. Originally designed by Rod Ledingham, the man who commissioned the first Apple Huts, for use on Macquarie Island, the original hut had no insulation which resulted in condensation throughout the hut. However, after figuring out how to properly insulate these tanks, fifteen tank huts were set up on Heard Island for the 2000-01 season. Much cheaper than the Apple Hut, the Tank Huts can also be flown in by helicopter or transported in by boat.

   While not as standard as the Apple Huts or Tank Huts, the AAD also uses a variety of standard shipping containers as huts. Some of these are set up more permanently on ground or on platforms, while others are kept on trailers that are used in caravans for mobile accommodation, and work areas. Generally pulled by bulldozers and tractors the containers are used for their strength and durability as they travel over rugged terrain. However, these containers are expensive to deploy and cannot be airlifted in by helicopter. Similar to these containers are fiberglass units developed by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) that also sit on sleds and can be pulled by hagglunds, a tractor like device designed for snow and ice. While the RMIT vans are smaller than and not as durable as the containers, the original units from the 1960’s are still in use today.

   Emergency shelters also play a very important role in Antarctic research. In emergency situations where extreme winds make it impossible to pitch a tent, the AAD has developed the mega bivvy. Similar to Archigram’s Cushicle, Suitaloon, or Inflatable Suit Home, the mega bivvy is a small homemade sack made of rip-stop nylon and sewn together with an industrial strength sewing machine containing a draw-string entrance and air vents. They are capable of holding anywhere from four to twelve people in emergency situations. They are supported by the inhabitants leaning back against the fabric, leaving room in the middle for a stove that can heat the interior. More importantly it is designed to be deployed quickly and, if necessary, on top of someone without having to move them.

   Moving on to permanent Antarctic structures, Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Research Station in Dronning Maud Land is on the cutting edge of Antarctic architecture. The completion of this base at the end of 2008 marked Belgium’s return to the continent after a 40 year absence. This was a big deal for Belgium as the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99 was the first ever expedition to spend the winter in Antarctica, even though this was unplanned and due to their boat getting trapped in the ice. However, the major breakthrough is that this station is powered entirely by solar panels and eight wind turbines, making this summer only station Antarctica’s first zero-energy station. This is a major breakthrough on a land that is completely isolated from the rest of the world and where mining and drilling for resources is strictly prohibited. Since no new technologies were developed in order to do this, it became very important to choose a proper site for this base. Because this is a summer only base it can rely on the sun’s energy 24 hours a day while in operation, but the sun is not enough to power the base on its own. The base would need to be located in an area with an average wind speed of 17 miles per hour to provide enough power to the station; however, extremely high winds, a common occurrence across the continent, could cause damage to the turbines. Belgium’s original King Baudouin base had been built on ice, but heat that escaped the structure caused the ice to melt making the structure unstable after only ten years. Rather than build the base on stilts as many other new bases are doing, to solve this problem it was decided that the new base would need to be built on rock, and in particular rock that was orientated to avoid the massive snow drifts that occur in Antarctica. However, building on rock presents logistical challenges as it usually means that snow is far away making the base inaccessible by snowmobiles, difficult to melt snow for water, and far away from the shore. Using satellite images a few sites were selected in which the rocks covered a very small area making it both possible to build on while still accessible. Researchers set up equipment at these sites and in the end it turned out a site near the Sør Rondane Mountains offered not only ideal conditions that met the requirements of the zero-energy design, but were also close to a variety of different environments making it a great location for research.

   In addition to all this research on choosing a proper site, a great deal of thought went into creating a building that not only provided a comfortable home and work environment for researchers, but also minimized the amount of energy required. Johan Berte visited a bunch of other bases to see what works and what doesn’t work in order to make the base as comfortable as possible for the researchers while also ensuring that the base used only one fifth the amount of energy as other bases of a similar size. Additionally, the station will produce as little waste as possible, gray water will be used for washing machines and toilets, while waste water will be purified and emptied into crevasses where it will instantly turn to ice without disrupting the environment. All waste will be removed from the site each year, as opposed to most other bases that burn their waste thus creating toxic gasses. The building, very much like Fuller’s Dymaxion House, is built around a central core, but instead of it being for circulation it is for the most sensitive equipment used at the base. This core is then surrounded by the kitchen and other functional areas, with bedrooms and living areas stretching out around the perimeter of the building. And just like the how the Dymaxion House is lifted off the ground, the Queen Elisabeth Research Station stands on stilts in order to minimize the amount of snow that piles up around the building.

   With its first module completed and in place on Antarctica, and the rest still under construction in South Africa, England’s Halley VI Research Station is another exciting new base being built on the frozen continent. As the name states this is the sixth incarnation of the Halley station, a station that has been in existence since 1956, and has been designed with the intent on it lasting many more years than the previous five structures, two of which were built underneath the ice. Not to mention in a radical change from most Antarctic design, this station was designed by Hugh Broughton Architects, a firm with no experience in the Antarctic which won an international RIBA competition to design the station. The station is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf which is a 650 foot thick piece of ice floating on top of the Weddell Sea that moves over a quarter mile each year into the ocean where it eventually breaks up into icebergs. The current Halley V station is in danger of breaking off onto one of these icebergs within the next decade. In addition to this movement the ice shelf receives approximately 3 feet of snow each year which continuously accumulates. While this may seem like a strange place to build a station, it is of great scientific value; it was from the Halley station that scientists discovered the hole in the o-zone layer back in 1985. Therefore Broughton has designed this station to be built on hydraulic stilts that are sitting on top of skis. This not only prevents escaping heat from melting the ice, but allows each module of this eight piece station to be raised for snow plowing and moved to more solid ground. While the current Halley V sits on stilts, it takes 40 people several days to lift it above the snow and it cannot be moved inland, it will take only 2 people and a bulldozer a few weeks to raise and move all the modules in the new Halley VI station. This ability to actually move the structure both vertically and horizontally makes it the world’s first “walking city”

   The station has an interesting design with 6 identical blue modules, a bridge module, and a large red module. The large red module is the social module with windows designed for viewing the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), while the bridge acts as a fire barrier in addition to forcing the researchers to walk outside every day, an activity that is very important for their mental health on the frozen continent. The other six modules are used for living and laboratories, with the two functions being separated by the bridge module. And since it is composed of modules, it can be easily expanded to accommodate more researchers if there is need to do so in the future. The bright colors, chosen because of their appearance on the Union Jack, will help give the researchers a bit of contrast on the otherwise entirely white continent. Arranged in a straight line to help prevent snow drifts from building up, each module has a different look on the inside with the bedrooms being made of individual pods. The modules, completely fabricated in South Africa, are currently being put together next to the Halley V station, which is being used as a home for the construction workers, but upon completion, the new station will be moved 9 miles inland to its first of many homes. The base, which is a year-round base, should be operational for the 2009-10 summer season.

   With all of these projects being built in Antarctica that look like they could have come out of pages in Archigram, it is little surprise that when David Garcia Studio published its first edition of MAP: Manual of Architectural Possibilities a few months ago (September 2009) on the topic of Antarctica, it was Peter Cook who wrote the introduction to the project. The pamphlet is a two part project; the first part a study of the history, geography, and nature of Antarctica, while the second part contains proposals for possible research stations in the Antarctic. One of the more interesting proposals is a reincarnation of Warren Chalk’s Flying House. In this project three retired commercial airliners are retrofit as living and working accommodations in Antarctica. Besides the fact that airplanes are built to withstand the extreme environment of flying at 35,000 feet, the project solves perhaps the most difficult problem of building a base in Antarctica, that of transporting the building or building materials to the site. These planes were going to be flown to scrap yards, so why not fly them to Antarctica instead. Only in a place like Antarctica would the thought of living in grounded airplanes seem not only reasonable but actually like a very well thought out idea.

   It is clear that building in Antarctica is quite different than building anywhere else on Earth. The ideas proposed and buildings that are built come right out of the space age and science fiction. But the question still remains as to why Buckminster Fuller and Archigram proposed such similar designs but proposed them for the rest of the world. It seems to me that the answer exists in the environment they grew up in, that of course being an environment of war. Whether World War or Cold War, their proposals only make sense when looked at in this context.

   Born in 1895, Buckminster Fuller was a radio operator in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. A major turning point in the history of the world, World War I was one of the last wars to use cavalry and one of the first wars to use machine guns. Always a sailor at heart, Fuller loved the discipline of the Navy and was placed on the cutting edge of technology during the war. He was involved in some of the first trans-Atlantic radio communications and took up a great interest in technology. Obviously influenced by the air raids that took place during the first World War, Fuller proposed in 1928 as a way of delivering his 4D Towers all around the world, that a zeppelin carrying his 4D Tower could first drop a bomb on a site and then place the tower inside of the crater. His Dymaxion House was built like a ship with everything organized around a central mast and entirely prefabricated. Just like his 4D Tower, the Dymaxion House could be assembled in one day, a very useful strategy during war. Then during World War II, Fuller designed his Dymaxion Deployment Unit in 1941, which was nothing more than a grain silo converted into a house. In 1943 came his Dymaxion Map, a world map composed of squares and triangles designed to reduce distortion and create uninterrupted land masses, interestingly it is one of the few projections that shows a distortion free and unbroken Antarctica. It is his experiments with the Dymaxion Map that would eventually lead to his discovery of the geodesic dome. Then after the war in 1946 he came up with his Dymaxion Dwelling Machine or Wichita House, a home that could be built in the aircraft factories that no longer needed to produce fighters and bombers after the war. It was in the 1950’s at the height of the Cold War that his geodesic domes would be used throughout the Arctic to make up the DEW Line to protect the U.S. against Soviet air raids coming over the Arctic Circle. It is interesting that while his designs were meant for a world at war, he would become a hero for the peace loving hippies in the 1960’s, although he was of course a peace loving man himself.

   Likewise, Archigram, well aware of the works of Fuller, was also hugely influenced by war. With the six members of Archigram being born between 1927 and 1937, all of them grew up during World War II. In fact the two oldest members Warren Chalk and Ron Herron were both from London, a city that was heavily bombed by German air raids. During these air raids Londoners would take shelter in the London Underground, sleeping on the platforms and even on the train tracks. The city even went as far as to build the London Deep Level Shelters, a series of air raid shelters that were intended to become another subway line after the war, although this new subway line never materialized. There is no doubt that the members of Archigram would have been well aware of the use of transportation tunnels as shelter. So it should be very little surprise that Warren Chalk would think up the Flying House while Ron Herron imagined the Walking City. But like Fuller, Archigram was also influenced by the Cold War and in particular by NASA and the space race. Ron Herron even references Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, then known as Cape Kennedy, as a moving super structure in his Walking City project. David Greene’s Living Pod looks like it could have come directly from one of the Apollo missions, while Ron Herron’s Seaside Bubbles proposes underwater housing. The group was formed as a response to the uninteresting post-war constructions going up in London. So Peter Cook’s Plug In City was a proposal as an alternative way to rebuilding a city, while David Greene’s Logplug/Rokplug completely did away with the city while once again referencing a transient way of life. Of course it was Mike Webb’s Cushicle that expressed the ultimate transient lifestyle, a housing machine that walked and was carried on your back. The machinery and lifestyles proposed by Archigram were completely non-traditional and could only have been inspired by a life during wartime.

   So it was war that inspired the creations of Buckminster Fuller and Archigram, and it is the structures of war that become most appropriate for survival in extreme environments. While Antarctica is mainly built of modular, light weight, permanent structures, it is still heavily reliant on tents. In fact Patriot Hills, the only privately operated base on the continent of Antarctica, relies exclusively on tents. While many of the tents in Antarctica are specially designed for the environment as they need to resist heavy winds and snow, in other extreme environments military style shelter is more common. At Mt. Everest Base Camp in Nepal, modular military tents are used for mess halls and communication centers. There are no permanent structures, but rocks may be stacked alongside the tents to create stronger barriers against the elements. On the mountain itself, just like in Antarctica, more specialized tents are used as they need to be light weight and their only function is to provide shelter from wind and snow while acclimating to low oxygen levels at higher camps in preparation for the final trek to the summit.

   Designing for these environments requires a high level of creativity, and a way of thinking that doesn’t necessarily make sense for the normal environments in which we live. But designing for war requires the same higher level of creativity and many of the same principles, modular, light weight, pre-fabricated, and easily erectable structures. It is for these reasons that the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Archigram thrive on the continent of Antarctica. As more stations get built or replaced, there is little doubt there will be a greater focus on sustainability and longer life spans for the structures. More and more high tech structures will be built on Antarctica, and most likely they too will bring the drawings of Buckminster Fuller and the pages of Archigram to life. And as I’m sure Buckminster Fuller and Archigram would be proud to say, today we build in Antarctica, tomorrow we build on the moon.

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“Field Accommodation Review Report - 4 Selecting Temporary Field Accommodation Solutions in Antarctica.” http://www.aad.gov.au/MediaLibrary/asset/MediaItems/ml_376976209375_Part%204%20Selecting%20Field%20Accommodation%20Systems.pdf.

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“Field Accommodation Review Report - 8 Developing a Workplace Compliance and Maintenance Program for Field Huts and Refuges.” http://www.aad.gov.au/MediaLibrary/asset/MediaItems/ml_376976226388889_Part%208%20Field%20Refuge%20Maintenance%20System.pdf.

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