Article by Guoda Bardauskaitė and Suzanne van Niekerk
In the words of environmental architect and anarchist Marco Casagrande, “survival is just the first step in discovering true beauty”. The Lapland native believes in an almost cruel method to his medium, where human intentions come naturally second to nature’s. It is with this in mind that one needs to approach his workshop on the frozen lake of Rössvatnet in subarctic Norway. Over the course of ten days, students were to join in the creation of a nomadic city on the ice, both weathering and embracing the cold and wind, and alternating blizzards and slush.
Nomads from 5 universities, 4 continents and 16 countries
There were twenty of us in total. In addition to Marco himself, his wife, Taiwanese journalist Nikita Wu, his long time friend Norwegian architect Hans-Petter Bjørnådal, Czech MA student and carpenter-extraordinaire Jan Tyrpekl, made up the organizational team. The sixteen students of nineteen nationalities came from four universities and four different artistic disciplines: Environmental Art students from Aalto University in Helsinki, Sustainable Urban Design students from Lund University in Sweden, Architecture students from UEM in Madrid, Spain and one Fine Art student from Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany.
Together we were going to create, explained Marco over generous cups of Finnish vodka, a city of subtle proportions: a mobile city for nomads to respect and be humbled by nature. Individually, the students would make their own small ice fishing shelters come aurora observatories. And together we would create two key communal focal points: a large scale observatory and a sauna. As Marco liked to point out, a sauna is, simultaneously and contradictorily, both an indicator of civilization and a chance for humans to return to a more bass nature.
Sauna – the indicator of civilization
From the beginning the workshop was spontaneous and intuitive. The students were unaccustomed to each other, building processes and materials were unsecured, and we were camping in the local schoolhouse for the first two nights after our original accommodations fell through. Despite the circumstances though, there was an underlying sense of optimism present from day one. The workshop attracted a certain kind of spirit and without complaint we quickly came to appreciate the quirks of having a road kill for dinner, wearing garbage bags as rain protection without the slightest sense of irony, and the joy of merely being out of the wind, even while being completely soaked to the core.
Less sketching, more work!
This was also a workshop about doing. We were encouraged to lay down our pencils and start experimenting with structures. It was about self-discovery, and Marco left us to our own devices. If we needed a consultation, he could be found on the ice, quietly fishing. There was no lack of inspiration, though. There is a rich heritage present in the Sami culture, and many of the citizens of Hattfjelldal were keen to talk with us. Every evening around the fire Marco too would tell us tales of nomadic culture and myths and stories of his childhood. Perhaps the most prolific though was the influence from the nature, it affected both our design ideas and the development of our projects.
We experienced a massive range of weather conditions — from beautiful, clear sunny days with crisp snow underfoot, to sleet and hail, soggy snow, and powerful winds. With the former solid ice surface of the lake turning into a continuing series of thigh-high pools of slushy ice water, it took an afternoon to move the sauna a hundred or so meters from the shore on to the site. We had envisioned an easy and graceful move, hoping a helicopter pilot at the farm would transport it for us, dropping it into place without so much fuss. Of course, that was not going to happen, it took a combined effort of ingenuity and manpower of the entire group instead. And when it was finally settled, with the observatory in place next to it, we felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
DIY, or sami teaching methods
As the weather continued to worsen, Marco grew consistently cheerier. Keeping in line with his philosophy, it was almost as if the weather was conspiring with him to teach us the importance of survival. According to him, every architect needs the basic knowledge of working with primitive tools under harsh conditions for their education. It should not be easy.
But in truth, some things were made extremely convenient for us. The residents of Hattfjelldal treated us with their incredibly warm generosity. They taught us how to fish, provided us with materials, lent us tools, and avidly followed our progress by reporting on it in the local paper. Our hosts on the farm where we stayed organised a meeting with the local community where we had the opportunity to present our work and answer questions.
Planned, but still unexpected outcome
The interest was so great that we learned that over 200 people, including the mayor, planned on attending the opening of our city. That day turned out to be an interesting, complicated day. We were awake and on the ice Since five in the morning, finishing our work in what can only be described as miserable weather.
As midday – the scheduled opening time – approached, we sincerely wondered if all these people would still attend, in the gale force winds and relentless sleet. Yet they did come – some wading through the ice water, some on snowmobiles and skis, and all in contagious good mood. Moss, a Greenlandic drummer, played while a young girl sang Sami ritual songs. The mayor, instead of opening the city by cutting a ribbon, drilled a hole in the ice, and we all indulged in the most exquisite local cuisine of hot fish soup and goat sandwiches.
Looking back it is tricky to evaluate the effectiveness of the workshop considering the prevailing chaos and not particularly polished final result. After such an inconsistent, unpredictable and uncontrollable process, it is not surprising that the nomadic city ended up looking like a haphazard collection of random shapes, reminiscent of ruins. But can one wish that a workshop centralized on survival would be done in an orderly fashion? According to Marco’s philosophy, ruins are a tipping point when a man-made object becomes part of nature. Even the news that one student’s ice structure melted into nothingness by the time of the opening were received with satisfaction – as we impose ourselves on nature, we have a responsibility to leave as small trace as possible. Ultimately, it was about the process. Everyone had vastly different outcomes in their structures and artworks, but that is a positive thing. What this workshop really gave us was an opportunity to live and work for ten days in a place devoid of contrivances and ego, a “true reality”.
Visuals by Greg Eeman, Guoda Bardauskaitė, Valmar Valdmann, Marco Casagrande, Sandra Hofmann, Marco Casagrande, Nikita Wu, Ketil Born, Valmar Valdmann, Suzanne van Niekerk, Lilo Rosita, Harri Piispanen.