Ice is the foundation of our existence, and it is rapidly eroding. In Ilulissat, Greenland, the terrain has been irrevocably altered in the Anthropocene era. In the midst of this harsh yet beautiful Arctic landscape lies the Kangia Icefjord — home to the world’s most active glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq, which deposits 46 cubic kilometres of cast-off ice into its waters every year, an ever-accelerating phenomenon. The fjord’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 ignited the call for a centre of knowledge — a place where people could glimpse what, for more than 250 years, scientists have uncovered about ice cap glaciology and climate change.
To understand this multi-layered context, Dorte Mandrup worked in close dialogue with leading geologist Minik Rosing. Mandrup defined her architectural response as a condition of nature rather than an expression of vernacular. Like the wing of a snowy owl gently touching the bedrock, the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre levitates slightly over the terrain; by lifting the building on small stilts, Mandrup avoided blasting the bedrock and allowed meltwater to drain from the ground and into the lake in front. The lightness also emphasizes the idea that the building should reflect time itself — the contrast between the perishability of an artificial structure and the permanence of the ancient bedrock.
The centre’s boomerang form prevents snow from accumulating on the facade (using potato flour as a stand-in, the architects performance-tested this effect in a wind tunnel). It is composed of 52 steel frames clad in European hardwood, which transition from acute triangles at either end to a rectangle in the middle — because each frame has a unique geometric shape, they allow the structure’s 300 windows to be inclined at various angles on the facade. Doubling as a gentle ramp, the building’s roof invites visitors to ascend to a plaza and communal meeting space that overlooks the magnificent landscape.
Inside, that vista unfolds through the glass while people learn about nature and culture. In the main exhibition space, the installation “Sermeq pillugu Oqaluttuaq — The Story of Ice,” designed by JAC Studios, features authentic ice cores from the Niels Bohr Institute. Witnesses to nature’s resilience, they track the Earth’s changing climate all the way back to 124,000 BCE.
Team: Dorte Mandrup with Kristine Jensen (Kristine Jensen Landscape & Architecture); Søren Jensen Engineering Consultants; JAC Studios; KJ Greenland
Like the wing of a snowy owl gently touching the bedrock, the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre levitates slightly over the terrain.