20 h Student Competition 2015
Honorable mention

Tapis vert

The competition site is an abandoned coal mining town, Pyramiden, located in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. Svalbard is a special demilitarized zone defined by the Svalbard treaty of 1925, which recognizes Norwegian sovereignty yet guarantees the 42 signatory countries visa-free access and freedom to engage in commercial activity. The brief called for experimental methods of preservation to address the condition of Pyramiden.

We argue that Pyramiden embodies a mindset of ruthless resource extraction. It is an attitude towards the Arctic that, unless radically altered, will drain the continent of its natural resources and bring about countless abandoned landscapes. Preoccupied with turning the resulting ghost towns into museums for tourists, we are not seeing the forest for the trees. The most radical act of preservation in the Arctic is to turn our attention to the future instead of the past. Tapis vert proposes an on-going effort of the Svalbard treaty states at the site of Pyramiden: the joint act of watering the artificial lawn at the heart of the town as a gesture of owning up to man-made changes in the environment and long-term commitment to their consequences.

For centuries, the Arctic was the ultimate goal of exploration. The process of glacial recession is now uncovering lands rich in metals and minerals, and an ocean bed replete with oil and gas. The polar void, a no-mans land, is turning into a shared battlefield of overlapping economic and political interests. The resulting claims for possession are ambiguous, reaching far outside recognized jurisdiction and territory.

The mining town of Pyramiden in the Svalbard Archipelago is one of many settlements born around Arctic resources. These short-sightedly planned colonies exhaust themselves as they exhaust the resources they were born to extract. Unless this mindset is radically altered, more future ghost towns will be produced all around the region. Ghost towns are intriguing for their empty playgrounds, closets full of clothes and unmade beds, evoking in us a sense of our own mortality. Turned into outdoor museums of reconstructed history, the absence of life in the frozen city setting ignites in tourists a nostalgic longing for times past, a longing which can never be truly fulfilled. Due to its sudden demise, Pyramiden paints an unusually sharp image of days gone by, and the totality of its isolation makes it appear more distant in time than it actually is.

Pyramiden was formulated as an expression of the ideal city. In a gesture reflecting the total appropriation of Arctic nature, the community of Soviet mine workers made life tolerable in the harsh, rocky landscape by bringing their own land with them. The imported soil enabled the cultivation of plants and helped support livestock. The entire village was arranged around an artificial rectangular lawn, lush green in Summer months in contrast to the surrounding grey tundra, and reminiscent of the unbroken expanses of greenery in the gardens of old world palaces. The implanting of the green carpet turned out very successful. Today, the grass is a part of the local ecosystem, and as an organic, living culture that is reborn every Spring, it will prevail and outlive any man-made artifact at Pyramiden.

Now is the time to change direction and, instead of pursuing separate national interests, define a new common framework for the future development of the Arctic. Instead of focusing our efforts on preserving fragments of an idealised, not-so-distant past, let’s divert our attention to owning and nurturing the consequences of our own action and inaction. Let’s stop treating the Arctic as something that has already been lost. If there are no ghost towns there will be no need to preserve them. In the case of Pyramiden, the cold climate will stall the erosion of its actual buildings, freezing their physical form in time and keeping the memory of the mining community alive for at least the next 500 years. Yet, their age depends on the effects of anthropogenic global warming - the warmer it gets the faster the built environment will deteriorate.

Tapis vert is an invitation to all the members of the Svalbard treaty to set up their own sprinkler in the main lawn of Pyramiden and water it as a joint effort to acknowledge responsibility for the permanent changes in the local ecosystem they have contributed to. An individual sprinkler irrigates the lawn in circles within its reach, and it will be the grass in the overlapping areas that grows greenest. Subtle variations in grass will appear, like giant brush strokes of different tones of green, invisible from immediate vicinity but unmistakable when viewed from high up the mountain Pyramiden.

In collaboration with Johanna Brummer

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tapis vert (ta-pē ver', 'green carpet', French)
An unbroken expanse of lawn used as a major element of a landscape design.

Svalbard archipelago

Locations of main cities and the town of Pyramiden.

Maritime jurisdiction in the Arctic

National territories & overlapping claims for continental shelf beyond internal waters.

Resource Extraction in the Arctic

Confirmed and potential reserves,
unknown reserves under ice cap.

Overview of abandoned mining town Pyramiden in Svalbard

The proposal Tapis vert engages the artificial lawn at the heart of the town, the land for which was originally imported by Soviet mine workers for cultivating plants and supporting livestock.

Aerial view of the tapis vert of Pyramiden

The design proposal invites each of the Svalbard treaty states to maintain the imported landscape with sprinklers in a joint effort, as a metaphor of the common resposibility each nation must take for the Arctic region. The mindset that brought about Pyramiden and will leave countless similar exhausted mining towns across the Arctic needs to be radically altered. Instead of short-sightedly pursuing national interests, countries must own up to the changes their actions trigger in the environment.

Central lawn of Pyramiden

Sprinklers set up by Svalbard treaty states water the lawn, and the grass becomes greenest where sprays of water overlap. In stark contrast to the surrounding grey tundra, the lawn is a persistent sign of life in the ghost town. It is reborn every Spring as part of the local ecosystem, and it will outlive any man-made artifact in Pyramiden.

Heini-Emilia Saari

Tel. +358 40 533 9454
heini.saari (a) gmail.com