This year at the Venice Biennale there is one unexpected addition to the usual national pavilions: the Antarctic Pavilion, a “transnational” one. Curator Nadim Samman explains the thinking behind it, and the very pressing need to challenge and change our views of the South Polar region, in order to feed an expanded Antarctic imaginary – and the new architecture that might serve it.
Antarctica is not generally represented or communicated as a cultural space, despite the fact that it has been inhabited for more than a century. This repressed cultural dimension is not just of esoteric concern, for the lack of any historical architectural overview has direct consequences upon what is constructed there. Almost without exception, polar stations are designed by engineers with little regard for what it might be like to inhabit them – and what futures they project. How does this pseudo-architecture circumscribe understanding of our relationship with Antarctica? What are we being denied by laissez-faire acceptance of the existing intellectual silos which lead only to these bunker-like building projects?
Perhaps opportunities to build upon previous innovations are being missed. What, for instance, could a masterplan for Graham Land, the most populous of all Antarctic regions, do for reducing our ecological footprint there? How might it catalyse greater cooperation among various national research groups and incorporate lessons from the practical collaborations that already go on unofficially – facilitating new scientific and social advances?
The lack of any architectural analysis or overview is, at least in part, a symptom of geopolitical conditions that limit and even contradict the transnational project of Antarctic occupation as pure science. If undertaken, the analysis involved in drafting the aforementioned masterplan might conclude that the area could lose a few research stations altogether without harming scientific endeavour. The relative proximity of Argentina and Chile’s stations are a case in point; seemingly more a signal of competing national territorial designs than scientific need.
It seems there’s tacit agreement not to acknowledge the diplomatic cover that scientific enterprise provides states jockeying for natural resources. Research can often be turned towards practical ends unforeseen or even contrary to researchers’ intentions in any case. “Pure” inquiry can easily be made applicable to such things as the exploitation of mineral and biological reserves: accurate geological surveys facilitate understanding of where to drill oil wells or establish gold mines. Science need not even be practiced in order to serve rapacious appetites. Evidence suggests that some “research” stations are little more than Potemkin villages built by countries in order to obtain Antarctic Treaty membership, so as to influence the management decisions regarding the continent’s fisheries. In concrete terms, many states are only paying lip service to the singular importance of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty – which pledged freedom of scientific research and the continent’s use for purely peaceful purposes. So the worry is that if enough signatories were to deem it expedient, this treaty could be amended for the worse.
All this points towards the abrogation of Antarctica’s utopian potential. In order to rehabilitate this we must entertain visions of living there that go beyond the established missions. While most of these visions will necessarily remain theoretical – given the resources necessary to make things happen on that continent – architecture constitutes one important field of interface between idea and application. Though a functional, material enterprise, it encapsulates and imparts values, conditions behaviour and informs subjectivities. Antarctic architecture may yet, therefore, contribute to building futures whose relevance and power transcend the continent itself.
While the web affords non-residents space to explore all types of issues concerning Antarctica, what is still lacking is a developed site for aggregating, analysing and discussing material. Such a site could be a key bridge between speculation and practice. The construction of a virtual “research station” might empower broader critique of how the continent is conceived and managed by its governing bodies. It might even generate projects that influence South Polar agendas. While individuals are already (web) publishing on the subject, the establishment of this site could be the initial basis for a cultural institution dedicated to consolidating the notion of an expanded Antarctic imaginary – and its architectural potential.
This institution need not be a walled garden. It should engage with other structures and organisations as yet unconcerned with the continent. Given the need for historical and creative activity in the area of Antarctic architecture, polemical interventions in such contexts as the Venice Biennale are warranted. Establishing an Antarctic Pavilion will serve, initially, as a wake-up call to the architectural profession – concerning its disregard for what is being built in the South Polar Region, one that in time, may hopefully impact upon the design of real research stations. Furthermore, its polemical position vis à vis the Biennale’s overly-determined nation state structure is productive: the representation of a transnational space, questioning and challenging the politics of territorial representation. More importantly, it highlights how Antarctica has become in itself a Giardini of sorts, in which the sovereignty-obsessed cultural ambitions, relevant two centuries ago, still seem to hold sway.
We will not reform the Antarctic imaginary – and the architecture that serves it – without challenging the existing. Let’s embrace a vision of an Antarctic community that would know itself, and the continent, in ways still unrecognisable to current “scientific” missions. Among enthusiasts and projects yet to be dwells the promise of a future Antarctic for us all.
– Nadim Samman is the curator of the Antarctic Pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture.