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Looking to Canada's past in hopes of a greener architectural future

David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund, founders of Solsearch Architects and designers of sustainable PEI building the Ark, stand in front of the south side of the Ark in 1976.

If Canada hopes to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions targets, our construction and urban design must change on a vast scale

A planet in crisis. Energy prices rising. Prime Minister Trudeau celebrating new ways of protecting the environment.

The year was 1976, and the event was the opening of the Ark in Prince Edward Island – a project that combined innovative techniques of building and agriculture. Today, we call many of those technologies "green building," and the house is now the subject of Living Lightly on the Earth, an exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown that feels awfully timely.

"Forty years later," says one of the Ark's architects, Ole Hammarlund, "the issues that we are confronting are exactly the same."

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The ark was a totally self-sufficient home, with a greenhouse, tanks to raise fish, composting toilets and solar water heating.

The ferment of the 1970s has much to teach us as we face the reality of climate change and the changes that it will bring about. That insight drives two thoughtful museum shows up this winter, the PEI exhibition and It's All Happening So Fast at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

The PEI exhibition, curated by Dalhousie University professor Steven Mannell, includes a dedicated website and will generate a book by Mannell to be published in February. It focuses tightly on the Ark – a project that was born out of hippie activism, the idealism of the modernist movement in architecture, and a receptive political climate. In 1974, the Canadian and PEI governments invited the New Alchemy Institute, an independent research group based in Massachusetts, to build a project that demonstrated "a new commitment to living lightly on the earth."

The group, led by Ontario-born marine biologist John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, created the ark as what they called a "bioshelter." It was a totally self-sufficient home for a family of four, with a greenhouse that produced food for the family and for sale; and aquaculture tanks to raise edible fish, fed by algae. All this was contained inside a highly insulated building with south-facing windows and solar water heating, composting toilets and wind turbine. A mass of stones in a crawl space served to store heat and then radiate it at night; this use of "thermal mass" remains a basic strategy in sustainable building now.

While architect Ole Hammarlund recalls the PEI project fondly, he says that, today, the focus needs to be on housing in cities.

The project was designed by two young architects, David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund, who came together and formed a firm called Solsearch. "It was a project that would save the world, came with a bit of money and with a new partner," Hammarlund says, his eyes twinkling. "It really suited what I was looking for at the time." Hammarlund and Bergmark, both then long-haired and shaggy-bearded, took the project to heart: they settled in PEI, and Bergmark moved into the Ark with his family for several years, showing off the house's agriculture and aquaculture and design features.

Hammarlund recalls that there were many visitors, both long-time Islanders and the progressive back-to-the-landers who were drawn to PEI in those years. Yet after a decade as a demonstration site, the house closed, and it was largely demolished in the 1990s to be replaced by an inn.

Today, Hammarlund and Bergmark's office has evolved into BGHJ Architects, and they find few clients for radical ecodesign initiatives. Times have changed – and the architects' thinking has, too. These days, Hammarlund recalls the Ark fondly, but he wouldn't repeat it. "Today, we need to be thinking about systems," he says. "An isolated project like this, it sets an example, but we need to concentrate on housing in cities and how to achieve these goals on a large scale."

Born out of hippie activism in the 1970s, the Ark was an early example of a ‘green building.’

Indeed, if Canada hopes to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions targets, our architecture and urban design must change on a vast scale; building techniques and the form of our cities have enormous direct and indirect environmental impacts. The heating and cooling of buildings, plus the production of building materials, create at least 25 per cent of society's greenhouse gas emissions. (The data are murky but the Canada Green Building Council estimates it could be as high as 50 per cent.)

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That question drives It's All Happening So Fast at the CCA in Montreal. Subtitled "A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment," it is a suggestive, poetic, widely ranging show that brings together examples of "human intervention in the Canadian landscape" – many of them partly or entirely destructive. CCA director Mirko Zardini, who curated the show, casts it as the culmination of a series of CCA books and exhibitions that examine architecture's relationship to the environment, including the fascinating Sorry: Out of Gas, which explored design responses to the 1970s energy crisis.

John Todd explains the bioshelter agriculture and aquaculture systems in the Ark greenhouse to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

This show and catalogue take a national scope, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and critically so, including contributions from David Suzuki, John Ralston Saul and Douglas Coupland. The implied argument is this: Canadian architecture's relationship to the natural world includes sustainable buildings – but it also includes the devastated downtown of Lac-Mégantic, Que., and the role of oil-by-rail and pipelines in our economy and ecosystem. It includes the 381-metre Superstack that Inco built for its smelter in Sudbury that dispersed emissions away from the city thus affecting a massive area.

"It is important to understand the reality," Zardini says, "in connection with the myth that Canada is perhaps the last wild place. The reality is that Canada is no worse than other countries, but also no better."

The Ark is the subject of the an exhibit called Living Lightly on the Earth by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.

And if this seems to go beyond the scope of architecture, that is half-true: "The environment is too important to be left to architects or environmentalists," Zardini says. "We have to create a new cultural paradigm."

Accordingly the show includes specific design approaches that engage with the natural world, including the PEI Ark and Toronto-based Lateral Office's Making Camp. But as Zardini argues, meaningful responses to the preservation of our ecosystems and to mitigating climate change have to be big moves. "Environmental culture in the architectural discipline is not as strong as it should be," he says. "You know, it's useless to build a zero-emissions house if you need a car to leave the house and go to work."

That sounds obvious, but isn't always; the design professions now pay lip service to the idea of sustainability even as some of their members create 8,000-square-foot houses and design car-oriented suburbs.

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The Ark drew many visitors in its early years, but it was demolished in the 1990s to be replaced by an inn.

"Architecture is never neutral," Zardini says. "The physical environment is the result of a lot of fights, and architects have to decide on which side they want to stay."

Going back to the land and growing greens isn't enough – if it ever was.

It's All Happening So Fast runs through April 9 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.Living Lightly on the Earth runs through April 30 at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.

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