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Ilulissat Icefjord Center: Arctic flapping

Dorte Mandrup built the Ilulissat Icefjord Information Center in Greenland, right on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Arctic wilderness.

Foto: Adam Mørk

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An Icefjord Information Center has recently opened its doors in the town of Ilulissat in Greenland. Danish architect Dorte Mandrup designed it.

The spectacular Ilulissat Icefjord lies just outside the town of the same name on the west coast of Greenland, some 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Now an information and community center has opened there, right on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Arctic wilderness. The architecture celebrates the expansive view over the fjord with a transparent, curved structure.

Ilulissat Icefjord Center for tourists and climate researches

The ice fjord is one of the “Big Arctic Five,” the tourist-marketed highlights of any Greenland vacation. Those are: the Inuit culture, dog sleds, northern lights and whales – as well as snow and ice. On the one hand, the information center should attract tourists and provide information about climate change through exhibitions. On the other hand, it will serve as a venue for events for the locals. It will also be open to climate researchers around the year.

Foto: Adam Mørk

Greenland needs tourism

Greenland is in dire need of the income from tourism. There is a lot of poverty – alcohol addiction and depression are common. Also, the high suicide rates are one of the country’s biggest concerns. There are many reasons for this, including sleep disorders triggered by the uninterrupted sunshine. But above all the clash between traditional culture and the modern Western way of life seem responsible. 88 percent of the Greenlandic population today is Inuit or of Danish-Inuit mixed descent, they speak Greenlandic and Danish.

In addition, it is difficult to get from one city to another. There are no country roads, people travel by plane, helicopter, snowmobile or dog sled. To this day, the boat still is the most popular means of transportation.

Foto: Adam Mørk

Ilulissat Icefjord Center: Encroachment on Greenland’s nature?

But is it necessary to build a building on the edge of wilderness to draw attention to the dramatic consequences of climate change? Why build right here, on the edge of Greenland’s “untouched nature”? With the additional revenue for the city of Ilulissat, the question is quickly answered. Dorte Mandrup herself says that her design was primarily intended to look light – like the “wing of a snowy owl.”

The building rests on supports. It looks as if it has been temporarily parked and almost seems to hover above the rugged terrain. The wing shape frames the view of the fjord on the one hand, but also shields snow and the icy wind on the other. “The Ice Fjord Center provides shelter in this dramatic landscape and is intended to provide a natural focal point from which to experience the endless, human-hostile dimensions of the Arctic wilderness, the midnight sun and the northern lights,” explains Dorte Mandrup. The structure consists of a curved series of 52 triangular steel frames, the use of concrete has minimized them.

Foto: Adam Mørk

Ilulissat Icefjord Center: threshold between civilization and wilderness

But the main attraction of the building is its roof. Visitors can walk on it – a hiking trail that crosses the grounds also leads across the roof. From here it is possible to overlook not only the impressive icebergs in the bay, but also the city. Thus, this public institution forms a kind of threshold between civilization and wilderness.

The center’s rooms will be open to residents and visitors all year round, but they can also be used by businesses and politicians for events. The main attraction here is the exhibition with three central themes: “The Life Cycle of Ice,” “Life on the Ice Fjord” and “Climate Change.” Sponsored by the Danish philanthropic society Realdania and the government of Greenland, it shows how different Inuit cultures have lived in these harsh conditions and how climate change is affecting the Arctic landscape on the ground. For example, the center exhibits ice cores showing the climate from 124,000 years before Christ to the present day.

Foto: Adam Mørk

Insights into Greenlandic culture

The exhibition also deals with the cultural history of the inhabitants. As historians have been able to prove, the first people came to Greenland around 2500 BC. The cinema hall shows films about the long cultural history, as well as interviews with the inhabitants of Ilulissat, who talk about their everyday life and how they deal with the climate changes. The building also has a café, a store, and research and seminar rooms. Incidentally, in the exhibition rooms you can also rest on benches all around and take a trip to the Greenlandic research station EGRIP with the help of virtual reality glasses.

Last but not least, this place will serve as a banquet hall for the community. For example, people traditionally celebrate when the sun rises in January after six weeks of darkness and then sets again 40 minutes later. Now they can enjoy this sight from the seats on one of the open terraces at the end of each building. And visitors feel the influence of local customs in other ways as well; they should not be surprised when they are asked to take off their shoes at the entrance. This, too, is based on an old tradition in Greenland and supposedly also strengthens the sensory experience of the exhibition.

The Icefjord Center was opened in July 2021.

Foto: Adam Mørk

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