Hot Arctic-tecture

Special to The Times

An unblemished expanse of snow extends to the horizon, where the sun hovers low, providing pale light but no warmth. It’s 20 below, a normal winter day for the locals in this small town on the Arctic Circle, but a big challenge for the 130 volunteers from as far afield as Australia who have spent the past six weeks helping to build innovative structures and artworks from ice blocks and compressed snow.

Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and a dozen other adventurous architects were teamed with artists from around the world to create this first Snow Show here and in the port of Kemi, a 90-minute drive away. Their shimmering fantasies will intrigue visitors for another month before they melt away.

For Nadine Quirmbach, a German-born architect at Morphosis in Santa Monica, the show began in her kitchen last September. Thom Mayne, the firm’s principal, had explained his design concept -- “fossils” of red liquid embedded in transparent ice -- and asked her to realize it.

“I experimented with a 2-by-4-inch mold, using tap water and distilled water, but neither turned out clear,” she recalls. “So then I boiled and stirred it to get rid of the gases before pouring into the mold and achieved a level of clarity. But it was hot outside, so the ice melted as soon as I took it out of the freezer. It was a nightmare!”


Worse, the glycol she planned to put in polyethylene containers was judged unacceptable in Europe, and a more opaque liquid had to be substituted. Do-Ho Suh, the Seoul-based artist Mayne had picked as his collaborator, was overwhelmed by other assignments and his proposal for an ellipse of sunken floor lights was rejected as too costly four days before the final deadline.

Problems enough to derail any project, but the Morphosis-Suh construction overcame all setbacks. It’s on a rise outside Kemi: an open-ended, roofless rectangle of ice-block walls. At night, the enclosure and Suh’s ice totem are illuminated, glowing like a beacon across the snowy wastes. The blobs of red that punctuate the walls are as intriguing as the real fossils in the travertine blocks of the Getty Center in Brentwood.

Nearby is an equally arresting entry: a stylized Greek theater of compressed snow with a decor of tumbled ice fragments and curving walls. That structure was designed by the Athens-based partners, Anamorphosis, who met their collaborator, Eva Rothschild, in her home city of London. In contrast to most other participants, who relied on faxes and e-mails to harmonize their visions, the Greek architects and the British artist spent three full days sweating the details -- more than most collaborators spend on a real-life building.

For architect Kostas Kakoyiannis, the climate shift was easier to handle than he had expected. “In Greece, rock is ubiquitous, in the Arctic it’s ice. But both are landscape, and ancient theaters respond to the shape of the land,” he explains. “Here, the light is soft, and we can invite it in through transparent walls, where at home it overwhelms everything and has to be shut out.”

What makes this and several other Snow Show creations so powerful is the feeling that, wherever they were conceived, they are now an organic part of the country. It’s a rare treat to immerse yourself in the artist’s medium, as you do on the hourlong flight from Helsinki to Kemi. From your window, you gaze out over an infinity of whiteness, seemingly as desolate as the Mojave, except for the snow-dusted pines. As the plane descends, the landscape is bare, and you imagine you’ve gone beyond the tree line. Suddenly, just ahead, there’s a port with oil tanks and moored freighters, and you realize you’ve been flying over the Gulf of Bothnia. Upon stepping outside, the cold claws at your extremities.

Participants from Thailand, Mexico and Brazil had to create that environment in their heads and quickly learn what could and could not be done in snow and ice.

Most proposals were built as designed, though a few had to be modified. Hadid, who has won fame for the shard-like geometry of her buildings, submitted a gravity-defying composition of spiked forms. Ice was judged too brittle for such large-scale cantilevers, and the architect substituted a stepped horseshoe of ice and a twin in snow.

The concept for the Snow Show was conceived over lunch in Manhattan nearly four years ago by art curator Lance Fung and project coordinator Tuula Yrjola of the Finnish Tourist Office. Fung, a Chinese American from San Jose, had worked for art dealer Holly Solomon in New York before opening his eponymous gallery in Soho. Initially, he thought of commissioning artists to install work in the Snow Castle, an elaborate complex that is rebuilt in Kemi every winter. There, visitors belly up to an ice bar, sit down to dinner on ice stools, sleep on blocks of ice (well-insulated by reindeer skins and sleeping bags) and can even tie the knot in a nondenominational snow chapel under the gaze of an ice angel.


The castle is as entertainingly kitschy as Santa’s Village near Rovaniemi, where tourists can meet the old guy, explore his workshop and mail cards with his postmark. Fung quickly decided that a pristine setting would offer great scope for the imagination.

Two locations were chosen for their diversity and to qualify for a grant from the European Community. This was matched by pledges from each city and supplemented by donations from Finnish foundations, corporations and government departments. To test the viability of the project, one structure was built in each location last winter, and the seductive images that sped around the world in print and on the Internet helped win over many skeptics.

“My interest was in getting architects and artists to work together,” Fung says. “I spent a year selecting about 30 of each from an initial list of over a thousand and tried to match them up.”

Exploiting his art-world connections and the willingness of some architects to accept a fresh challenge, he requested proposals and received a surprisingly positive response. His diplomatic skills were challenged when he had to encourage a few participants to be more audacious and drop others for lack of funds. About $600,000 was spent to construct the 17 works, which included two student collaborations, and each team received an honorarium of $10,000.


A local expert, Seppo Makinen, drew on his decade of engineering experience in this field to supervise construction on both sites. His task was to vet designs, turn sketches into blueprints and marshal the 50 paid workers and international volunteers who worked side by side. Though the temperature can drop to minus 40, this winter had a mild start with little snow. That left barely a month for assembly, and the team performed heroically to ready almost everything by the opening on Feb. 11.

Their success was most conspicuous in the linear park across the frozen river from Rovaniemi. This provincial capital was leveled by the retreating German army in 1944 and was rebuilt according to the master plan of the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto. He gave it the form of a reindeer head, with leafy residential districts forming the antlers, and also contributed the handsome civic center. Each of the major artworks stands out boldly and conducts a dialogue with the snow-covered buildings on the opposite bank.


Tadao ANDO, who won acclaim last year for the Fort Worth Art Museum in Texas, worked with Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima to create an impressive fusion of architecture and art. Makinen mastered the challenge of building the 14-foot-high elliptical tunnel of ice blocks, and Miyajima embedded diagonal bands of digital numbers that glow like tiny points of fire.


Rachel Whiteread, an English artist who makes casts of architectural fragments and turns them into sculpture, used compressed snow to re-create a domestic staircase, tilting it sideways, compelling visitors to stoop as they walk beneath it. A Finn, Juhani Pallasmaa, housed the stair in a plain, pentagonal enclosure and joked that this provided a rare instance of an architect hiding his skills from view.

Saija Hollmen, Jenni Reuter and Helena Sandman, young architects from Helsinki who previously collaborated on the Women’s Center in Senegal, designed five ice lanterns, placed like the stars in the Little Dipper. The domed cylinders were cast in single 12-feet-high molds, their shells fractured as they froze, and conceptual artist Robert Barry added enigmatic words that were stenciled onto the ice above each opening. The mysterious beauty of ice is brilliantly evoked in these crystalline forms.

Yoko Ono chose a more remote site, just inside the Arctic Circle, for her “penal colony,” a massive cube of ice blocks enclosing an oppressive labyrinth, which she realized in conjunction with Arata Isozaki, the architect of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. Her selection of the site was vindicated on opening night, when the darkened sky was filled with the Northern Lights and glowing veils of the palest green played off the aqua tone of the ice.

Inevitably, in a show that emphasized experimentation, a few participants stumbled. Studio Granda, the leading architectural firm in Iceland, and German artist Lothar Hempel turned their backs on the materials at hand, placing a traffic light and a wrecked bicycle in a pool of warm water. It failed to produce a gush of steam.


Future Systems and Anish Kapoor, collaborators from London, created a giant strawberry sorbet that burst apart when lighting caused the interior of the shell to overheat. Hadid’s structure nearly suffered a similar fate when Cai Guo-Qiang, who specializes in pyrotechnic art, set it afire. Eager assistants fueled the blaze with vodka, turning it into a huge baked Alaska that began to melt.

Fung barred a second conflagration, and flew back to New York to plan future Snow Shows, which may include a presentation in the Italian Alps during the Winter Olympics of 2006.