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Image from Modern North of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in Cultural Centre in Dawson City, Yukon, designed by Kobayashi + Zedda Architects.
Image from Modern North of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in Cultural Centre in Dawson City, Yukon, designed by Kobayashi + Zedda Architects.

Book Review

The true North, strong and beautiful Add to ...

Modern North: Architecture on the Frozen Edge

By Julie Decker

Raincoast Books, 240 pages, $52

When Canadians talk about going up north, we usually aren't talking about the Far North: It's a long way from Georgian Bay to the tundra. But as we huddle in our living rooms in winter, all those kilometres of ice and snow feel very close, and we want our houses to keep the elements out. That desire to fight the cold, both physically and psychologically - together with a modernist design vocabulary - ties together the buildings in Modern North.

Author Julie Decker, who is Alaskan, has selected 33 houses, schools and cultural buildings in the Yukon, Alaska, Iceland and across Scandinavia. There's work by internationally famous designers here, including Norwegian-American architects Snohetta, and a museum project by Britain's David Chipperfield that does beautiful things by reflecting the Alaskan sky and mountains.

But many of the best buildings are houses located in Alaska and Iceland. One in Iceland, the Hof Residence by Studio Granda, is nestled right into the ground, taking its insulation from the earth just like traditional Icelandic and Finnish buildings.

The designers often use materials that are as rough as the landscapes: concrete, raw cedar, local stone. The dark copper sheathing on the Skrudas Residence, also by Studio Granda, echoes the volcanic rock that rules the Icelandic landscape. This house in suburban Reykjavik has a similar situation to many Canadian houses - there are neighbours close by and sublime views on the horizon. The architects have responded by using carefully placed windows to frame views to the ocean while obscuring the houses next door.

Along the same lines is the Nearpoint House in Anchorage, a handsome wedge on a hillside that captures mountain views without using too much inefficient glass. It's a good model for houses in Ontario, where many "cottages" are bigger than they have to be and many modernist houses have big, heat-seeping windows.

The Canadian content is pretty slim. Aside from an introduction by Globe and Mail architecture critic Lisa Rochon, there are four buildings by Yukon-based Kobayashi + Zedda, plus a gorgeous and fairly well-known camp dining hall by Toronto's Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. That dining hall is a simple form - it resembles a tent - that is gorgeously crafted from several types of wood and clear roof panels that open to let air flow through. It shows how well a building can be integrated with its landscape and still be practical enough to survive a tough winter. It's thousands of kilometres from the Yukon, so it's not all that northern in location - but it surely is in spirit, which is very Canadian.

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