Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup in Greenland contemplates climate change

Dorte Mandrup’s climate research and visitor centre sits light on a glacial and rugged Greenlandic bedrock, its twisting form like “a snowy owl’s flight through the landscape”.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Sep 23, 2021

The Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier is one of the world’s fastest and most active ones, annually calving over 35 km3 of ice. The awe-inspiring natural wonder is a swiftly moving, huge ice sheet, dramatically and loudly chipping off as icebergs into the Kangia Icefjord on the western coast of Greenland. Dorte Mandrup A/S has completed the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre on the edge of this UNESCO-protected wilderness, lying low amid the harsh and beautiful Arctic landscape clothed in snow and ice. The year-round visitor centre is designed as a meeting place for locals, companies, politicians, climate researchers and tourists, in tandem with housing exhibitions, a film theatre, a café and a shop, as well as research and educational facilities.

Dorte Mandrup, founder and creative director of the renowned Danish architectural firm, describes the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre as “a snowy owl’s flight through the landscape". The lightweight, aerodynamic structure appears to hover slightly over the magnificent terrain, “like an outstretched wing gently touching the bedrock,” she adds.

The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup sits on the west coast of Greenland, overlooking the Kangia Icefjord | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup sits on the west coast of Greenland, overlooking the Kangia Icefjord Image: Adam Mørk

Resting 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, the landmark architecture is shaped by its extreme conditions to become one with the rugged landscape, and offer unique vantage points to experience the natural Icefjord phenomena. It also strives to educate its visitors about the dramatic consequences on the landscape brought forth by climate change. Sitting lightly on the Greenlandic bedrock, the oldest in the world, the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre spews the story of ice, our planet, its climate, and the evolution of humankind, on a local and global scale, relating back to the history of time, especially our time on earth.

Fifty skeletal steel frames hosting inclined windowpanes arrange themselves in a boomerang atop the rocky ground, akin to the remains of a dormant animal skeleton, to form the uniquely complex shape of the Icefjord Centre. This slightly twisted and triangular shape widened at the base helps frame views to the fjord it overlooks, on top of preventing build-up of snow and becoming a refuge against harsh snow and freezing winds.

The lightweight visitor centre has a curiously twisted shape that prevents build-up of snow | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
The lightweight visitor centre has a curiously twisted shape that prevents build-up of snow Image: Adam Mørk

“The Icefjord Centre offers a refuge in the dramatic landscape and aims to become a natural gathering point from which you can experience the infinite, non-human scale of the Arctic wilderness, the transition between darkness and light, the midnight sun, and the Northern lights dancing across the sky,” shares Mandrup.

Its walkable roof is designed as a fully accessible public space, a gateway between the glacial wilderness and the town of Ilulissat. It is designed as a natural extension of the area’s hiking routes, leading visitors into the best spots to view the surrounding landscape and the massive icebergs. The structure is bookended by sheltered spaces for gathering and recuperation. “When the first glimmer of light hits the horizon in January after six weeks of darkness, the community gathers in this area to celebrate the sun coming up for 40 minutes before leaving again. The hope is that the roof will become the place for this important gathering,” shares the Danish architect.

50 skeletal steel frames with inclined windowpanes arrange themselves in a boomerang to form the structure | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
50 skeletal steel frames with inclined windowpanes arrange themselves in a boomerang to form the structure Image: Adam Mørk

The contextual design that relates directly to climate change has been outlined by sustainability by being constructed mainly around a steel frame, with the absolute minimum use of concrete that contributes largely to the rising carbon footprint from the construction industry. This also makes the form lightweight, ensuring minimal impact to the ancient bedrock and its fragile flora and fauna. The succinctly Scandinavian interior design displays abundant glazing on all sides, with wooden floors and ceilings sandwiching the steel and glass.

Inside the cultural building, visitors can experience the journey of ice from the genesis of the ice crystal in Greenland’s cold cloud layer, to when it unites with the inland ice and finally sashays towards the glacier and breaks off as icebergs. Learnings about how different Inuit cultures lived and flourished in these harsh conditions and how climate change manifests itself in the Arctic landscape is also included.

Steel and wood were used to construct the Icefjord Centre, with minimal amounts of concrete | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
Steel and wood were used to construct the Icefjord Centre, with minimal amounts of concrete Image: Adam Mørk

An exhibition designed by JAC Studios consists of a landscape of ice flakes where archaeological objects and films are exhibited in ice prisms of glass that visitors are urged to move between. These prisms have been created from blocks of ice collected from the Kangia Icefjord, 3D scanned, and then mouth-blown in glass. Authentic ice core drillings from the ice sheet make up the core of the exhibition, telling the story of the culture and climate from as far back as 1,24,000 years BC to the present.

The interiors display a glazed setting, the wooden framework bridging the rugged landscape | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
The interiors display a glazed setting, the wooden framework bridging the rugged landscape Image: Adam Mørk

Dorte Mandrup’s instantly impressive Ilulissat Icefjord Centre stands proud at the confluence of architecture and ecology, the natural and humane, an environmentally awake paradigm designed to co-exist with its powerful landscape. The project has been funded by Realdania, Avannaata Kommunia and the government of Greenland (Naalakkersuisut), and the exhibition by Nordea Foundation, Augustinus Foundation, Bloomberg Philatropies and OAK Foundation.

Exploded axonometric diagram | Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup | STIRworld
Exploded axonometric diagram Image: Adam Mørk

Project Details

Name: Ilulissat Icefjord Centre
Location: Greenland
Year of completion: 2021
Client: Realdania, Avannaata Kommunia and the government of Greeland (Naalakkersuisut)
Architect: Dorte Mandrup A/S
Landscape: Kristine Jensen. Landscape & Architecture
Engineer: Søren Jensen Rådgivende Ingeniørfirma A/S
Exhibition design: JAC Studios

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