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Warming Huts v. 2012 - Conceptual Shelters on Ice

by Milosz Jurkiewicz, published 2016-02-16
The 2012 Warming Huts international exhibition is an art and architecture competition that aims to “push the envelope of design, craft and art”. Without any specific theme, every team of artists and architects submits a design of a shelter “[in] response to the cold, the wind, beauty, and tectonics.” Three of the proposals are then installed on a 6.1km stretch of water used for skating named the Red River Mutual Trail. This multidisciplinary effort brings artists and architects together to re-conceptualize the issues of habitability in cold climates.


Coined by Peter Hargraves, the principal of Sputnik Architecture, the exhibition’s title draws from his intimate experience with the near subarctic climate of Winnipeg. The winters in the capital city of Manitoba last up to 6 months and delve into -40C degrees. Hargraves realized there was not only the necessity, but also the opportunity for a competition that provides temporary shelters from the menacing climate.

While the competition has no theme per se, the projects are evaluated based on “use of materials, providing shelter, poetics of assembly and form, integration with the landscape, and ease of construction”. In addition to the three winners, the 2012 edition of the competition invited a team from Frank Gehry’s firm as well as a team of students from the Faculty of Architecture at the University Of Manitoba. Each hut, or installation, was budgeted at $16,500 CAD.

The international response was diverse and rich, ranging from Czechs, American, Israeli, Norwegian and Germans. The proposals gravitated towards architectural schemes rather than art/installation ones; wherein the spectrum of hyper-functionality versus pure spectacle was polarizing. Competitions, such as Warming Huts, framed by extreme constraints breed extreme results; this is observed in several projects by their technical proficiency, structural mastery and engineering. On the other hand, Warming Huts winners cannot neglect other ambitious components associated with small scale construction such as attempting to relate to the environment, facility of construction, and the expenses associated with them. These polar oppositions saw a hyper-rationalized and simplified interpretation of the concept of warmth and hut, and how they may attempt to negotiate with each other.

A vast array of approaches are considered that can be, to an extent, qualified through several broad strokes. The increase of importance given to wood is observed in many projects, which highlight the many ways for which it can be treated. For example, one submission suggested the use of lumber via a phenomenological experience of sounds by strategically placing vertical slices of wood through which the wind subsequently passes. Another team carved thin openings into planks, patterned in organic forms that mimic the Northern Aurora lights, in an attempt to recreate the dancing waves on a smaller scale. Other wood based constructions were more traditional in their interpretations of a wooden shed, expertly designed and aesthetically purified. These projects navigated between using parametric based design, intended for the appropriation of children, while others were more orthogonal with an approach outfitted to groupings and gatherings. Some projects used the opportunity for a minimalist box to position spectators relative to specific views of the river, while another explored conical and curved forms to generate a wooden arcade. Other memorable projects included one that referenced Nordic mammals, a hut made out of a hat, and something like a white prisms that attempt to become the landscape itself.

The three selected projects distinguish themselves quite radically from each other; the laureates were: New York City based Kevin Erickson + Allison Warren who designed the Rope Pavilion, the Wind Catcher projects by the Norwegians Tina Soli and Luca Roncoroni, and the Czech Republic studio Mjolk who designed Ice Pillows. Together, these three eclectic projects highlight the conceptual potential of art and architecture in the context of climate and environment.

The jury conveyed that the Americans had undertaken a proposition of an unusual, but modest, sculptural form wherein “[t]he tectonics and material selection are highly resolved”. The Rope Pavilion is, in fact, constructed out of a manila rope stretched as a skin over a birch frame, allowing small gaps for views and light, designed within the dimensional constraints of 10’x8’x14’. This propositions stands out as a sober and controlled attempt at an exuberant version of a traditional hut, wherein people come in to put on their ice skates, escaping the biting Winnipeg winds.

The hut Wind Catcher, by Tina Soli and Luca Roncoron, was described by the jurors as, “Highly graphic, simple, and appropriate for a wind-swept river on the prairies.” Indeed they themselves represent their wind installation as a “simple (furniture-like) structure.” Based on the assumption that the geographical location truly receives high winds, the hollowed-out box with a “hole-in-the-wall” captures and channels the wind to create a type of horn.

Mjolk produced a machine for making bubbles; a highly technical feat consisting of an air-filled silicone balloon that is sprayed with ice water that freezes over the balloon effectively creating an inhabitable empty bubble of ice. The jury seemed impressed by the proposition stating that it is “Bizarre and intriguing!” Explaining that “The project completely re-invents the use of the skin on which all other projects are situated.” Particularly impressed by the way in which the natural materials are used to create shelters that fade into the landscape.

The 2012 Warming Huts exhibition also invited two teams, including a proposition by Frank Gehry and the other by the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. While the CCC does not have access to their proposals for copyright reasons, the projects can be described as thus: the first, by Frank Gehry and his team, is a hut made out of imported ice blocks that imagines the notion of a deconstructed igloo. The second, designed by a professor & 18 students from the University of Manitoba, is a hut that started off a solid piece of foam and was carefully carved out to allow for intimate resting nooks.

Opportunities for small scale projects provide fertile grounds for intellectual design, technical research and development. The theme Warming Huts is all the more pertinent given that it not only representative of a typology of architecture particular to Nordic countries, but also a theme close to the Canadian architectural identity. Therefore a competition of this type is admirable and justifies its considerable growth since its inception in 2009. The competition in itself does not provide any new model for the production of art and architecture. However, it is a refreshing reminder of the importance of diversity in a geographically and environmentally isolated city, such as Winnipeg, making it an intriguing competition marking exuberant and conceptually driven results.

(English version revised by Chantal Auger)
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