»Tradition is a dare for innovation.«

Alvaro Siza

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Svalbard Sojourns

A de facto commune in the Arctic Circle

  • Mining infrastructure of Pyramiden at the foot of the mountain from which the settlement takes its name. (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0) 1 / 15  Mining infrastructure of Pyramiden at the foot of the mountain from which the settlement takes its name. (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Billefjorden is in the archipelago of Svalbard. 2 / 15  Billefjorden is in the archipelago of Svalbard.
  • The outpost fell under the ownership of a Soviet Union state mining company in 1927. (Photo: Prillen, CC BY-SA 3.0) 3 / 15  The outpost fell under the ownership of a Soviet Union state mining company in 1927. (Photo: Prillen, CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • It was the rich coal resources that brought the Russians to the site. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 4 / 15  It was the rich coal resources that brought the Russians to the site. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • Thet built up infrastructure employing hundreds of miners. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 5 / 15  Thet built up infrastructure employing hundreds of miners. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • THe moners were all Russian-speaking and travelled to the outpost with their families, to fulfill two year contracts. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 6 / 15  THe moners were all Russian-speaking and travelled to the outpost with their families, to fulfill two year contracts. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • As a result, a thriving community was established, with Soviet-style architecture giving inhabitants a sense of “home”... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 7 / 15  As a result, a thriving community was established, with Soviet-style architecture giving inhabitants a sense of “home”... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • ...the wide-ranging facilities included a post office, an ice rink, a hospital, a school, a cinema, a hotel, a cultural centre and a sports hall. (Photo: Hylgeriak, CC BY-SA 3.0) 8 / 15  ...the wide-ranging facilities included a post office, an ice rink, a hospital, a school, a cinema, a hotel, a cultural centre and a sports hall. (Photo: Hylgeriak, CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • The community was remarkably self-sufficent, growing and storing food throughout the year in its farm buildings. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 9 / 15  The community was remarkably self-sufficent, growing and storing food throughout the year in its farm buildings. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • Meanwhile abundant coal which came down the chutes from the mines... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 10 / 15  Meanwhile abundant coal which came down the chutes from the mines... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • ...to be used to generate the community's own power at the Pyramiden power station. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 11 / 15  ...to be used to generate the community's own power at the Pyramiden power station. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • Today the farm buildings, once home to chickens and pigs, can still be spotted nestling alongside the more industrial infrastructure. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 12 / 15  Today the farm buildings, once home to chickens and pigs, can still be spotted nestling alongside the more industrial infrastructure. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • The isolated population enjoyed living collectively until 1998... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 13 / 15  The isolated population enjoyed living collectively until 1998... (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • ...when rising costs caused the Russians to abandon the outpost. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 14 / 15  ...when rising costs caused the Russians to abandon the outpost. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)
  • Today only one rather famous resident remains. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA) 15 / 15  Today only one rather famous resident remains. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)

A successful commune relies upon its members’ adherence to a shared vision of how to live and the pooling of resources to facilitate and maintain this. But as various cautionary tales in our recent issue no. 34: Commune Revisited demonstrate, such communities often fail to live up to their ambitions even when there’s a surrounding city as safety net. Which makes the rather successful case of a Russian mining settlement located in the far reaches of the Arctic Circle – a de facto Soviet-style commune – all the more remarkable…

Pyramiden lies on the Billefjorden in the archipelago of Svalbard, at the foot of a pyramid-shaped mountain from which it derives its name. Officially this is an “unincorporated area” of Norway, and historically the Norwegians have had little to do with its administration. The settlement was founded in 1910 by Swedish prospectors who discovered plentiful supplies of coal in the area and in 1927 sold it to Trust Arktikugol, a state mining company of the then-youthful Soviet Union, ever keen to establish and promote its influence.

Save then for a brief hiatus during the Second World War, the settlement continued mining operations uninterrupted until the last cart rolled off the tracks in 1998 when production costs became too prohibitively expensive to carry on and the remaining residents, who by then had dwindled to around 60, made a swift exit. In the years since, much has been written about Pyramiden as an “abandoned place”, with various ruin-tourism blogs documenting the eerie sight of what is supposedly the worlds “most northerly” statue of Lenin (not to mention the world’s most northerly grand piano), and buildings in remarkably good condition, preserved by the sub-zero temperatures.

The outpost fell under the ownership of a Soviet Union state mining company in 1927. (Photo: Prillen, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whilst Pyramiden’s commune-credentials derive mainly from the collective-planning ambitions of its Soviet central planners back in Moscow, it was nonetheless home to a surprisingly content and enterprising community of miners and their families, who travelled some 1,600 miles to establish the outpost. Amidst such remote and harsh conditions, a large part of this preservation of “loyalty and collectivism” was dependent upon its inhabitants happiness and, in a sense, their capacity to “forget” just how isolated (albeit together) they were as they fulfilled contractual stints of up to two years at a time. This was however a commune by design, a scheme dictated not solely by the output of its valuable resources but also conceived precisely to nourish the cultural and domestic lives of those who lived there.

With the blankest of landscapes acting as a backdrop, architecture played a considerable part in guaranteeing the wellbeing of the population, which at its height numbered around 1,000. Part of its contemporary photographic allure is to do with the incongruity of seeing Soviet-style signage and buildings alongside the more traditionally Nordic “beware the polar bear” signs. For those who lived there however, this was a means of retaining a sense of belonging. In fact, the planning and architecture of Pyramiden was so successful that conditions were considered to be far more favourable than those back in the USSR proper. Apparently the authorities who oversaw the mining operation had to field a volume of applications for contracts there that far outstripped the number available.

Today only one rather famous resident remains. (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt, CC-BY-SA)

It’s not surprising to see why, given that facilities at the site included a post office, ice cream café(!), hospital, cultural centre, cinema, swimming pool, hotel, sports centre, canteen, school and kindergarten – and a skating rink (a list rather reminiscent of a more recent Russian community enterprise). Naturally, power came via its very own coal power plant but the community was also impressively sustainable, even by today’s standards. And it had to be, given that between the months of October and June, Pyramiden turns into a rather different sort of gated community, one with gates of ice: the freezing of the sea renders imports – or exports – during this period impossible. The community therefore had in part to provide for itself, constructing an infrastructure which encompassed barns, greenhouses and a dairy whilst the coal burned by the power plant created mineral ash which was turned into bricks for construction. Such measures extended beyond the built environment too: in 1958 food was made free for the inhabitants and shipments of soil from back in the USSR were even used to create a piece of green space in the centre of the town – one which Lenin looks out over to this day, putting this commune firmly under the protective eye of communism, even though today there’s no one left to join the party.

Fiona Shipwright

For more on all things communal read uncube issue no. 34: Commune Revisited.

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