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.

Low-​tech reality
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.

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