No artists are more tightly tethered to the real world than architects. In addition to gravity and weather, they have to contend with the bottom-line demands of developers, the whims of clients, the maze of public regulations, the wrath of NIMBYs, the dictates of fashion. Given these and other pressures, it’s nothing short of miraculous that fine buildings ever get put up at all.
But architecture is more than a game of survival among many competing forces. It’s also a special way of looking at and interpreting the world, a practice of seeing systems and patterns in the jumble of routine, everyday experience. The curiosity that architecture encourages can lead its practitioners down winding paths of discovery, to destinations very far from the busy downtown zones in which most designers operate, most of the time.
Back in the summer of 2007, Toronto architect Reza Aliabadi was coaxed by this curiosity to fly as far north in Canada as air transport could take him, in order to know something of the great Arctic alternative to the time and space of urban living. But the landing strip at Pond Inlet, on the northern shore of Baffin Island, still wasn’t far enough from Toronto. So Mr. Aliabadi hired a boat and some Inuit guides, and cast off into the Arctic ocean.
Thinking about that August, the architect recalls the primordial desolation of the place he had come to – “the flat horizon, the horizontality of the landscape, the vastness and the void.” He told me that he keenly felt his “vulnerability in nature, since no urban skills are usable.”
The endless days made “clocks meaningless.” But the Inuit at Pond Inlet had found a way to pass the hours that fascinated Mr. Aliabadi.
On the face of it, their pastime was a simple business of stacking stones, one atop another, into surprisingly tall sculptures. But because he had been trained as an architect, Mr. Aliabadi knew that stacking things high is never simple. Making a tall, unsupported stack stand up involves hands-on knowledge of each element--the shape of it, its heft and weight and surface properties.
But in addition to the skill involved in carefully piling rock upon rock, the poetry of the Inuit gesture also struck Mr. Aliabadi deeply. The landscape of Baffin Island is one of the flattest terrains on earth. A special gravitational power seems to be at work in the earth there – a power that is psychological as well as physical – dragging everything down to the level of the ground and the low horizon. To stack up rocks into high, fragile sculptures is to defy this levelling force – to resist, as human beings have always resisted, whatever draws us toward the earth, death and dissolution.
The natural imagery and the art of the Arctic haunted Mr. Aliabadi since 2007, though a busy practice prevented him from pursuing his interests in the Canadian north. Until last year, that is, when he decided to enter an architectural competition sponsored by the New York-based eVolo Magazine.
The contest brief stipulated that the contributions embody fresh approaches to adding density, in the form of skyscrapers, to cities that were already dense. At first, he did what he calls “conventional sketches” of tall buildings. But not for long. Disregarding the competition’s practical thrust, Mr. Aliabadi chose to use the occasion to launch a free enquiry into the features that had made his Arctic trip so memorable.
The result of his speculations – it didn’t win, of course, and it will never be built in any case – is a high-density residential structure designed along the lines of the Inuit sculptures he saw at Pond Inlet, and deposited on an ice floe in the Arctic, one of the lowest-density spots on earth. The imaginary tower consists of large stacked boulders, each hollowed out to provide one or more apartments per rock, and arrayed vertically along a service and elevator shaft.
In the story Mr. Aliabadi has woven around his project, the stone building is a “refuge for restless souls,” a hostel for people harried by hectic urban time and other civilized constraints. It recalls igloos and caves, among the most primitive dwellings ever devised. Here, summertime refugee would be immersed in a parallel universe where daylight hours never end and where every stony cave in the sky opened toward the low, infinitely far horizon.
Were I to take up summer residence in this building, I would certainly sit down at once and try to write about it, to “get something done.” That’s the kind of driven city person I am. But I think I would soon be bewitched by the timeless views out my high, rock-framed window and becalmed by the same austere beauty, the same play of vertical and horizontal, that Reza Aliabadi found so compelling during his voyage into the Arctic wilderness.