Rising amid the tremendous white expanse of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, between Norway and the North Pole, in Longyearbyen, is The Arc, a visitor centre for Arctic preservation storage. Designed by Snøhetta and commissioned by Arctic Memory AS, it is located in one of the earth’s northernmost and lightly inhabited areas, where the elusive midnight sun pays visit during summers, among far-flung terrains of glaciers and frozen tundra.
The Arc will exhibit content from the world’s largest seed storage - the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and the Arctic World Archive, a chamber that intents to preserve the world’s digital heritage. Visitors at The Arc (in collaboration with the Norwegian Natural History Museum) will also be provided with information and discerning data about the unique geology of Svalbard, and its transformation over millions of years.
Svalbard is known for its geopolitical and climatic constancy, and is henceforth suitable for secure, long time storage. Located in the permafrost (grounds that remain completely frozen for at least two years), 1,300 km beyond the Arctic circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains spare copies of seeds of various flora, of seeds held in gene banks across the world, to combat any impending loss of seeds during cases of massive regional or global catastrophes.
Similarly, the Arctic World Archive is a vault that aims to conserve the world’s digital heritage, and make this preservation available for generations in the future. All the content is written to piqlFilm, which will safeguard it for centuries ahead. The archive outlines whether to store this digital content in format of bits and bytes, or visually, as text or images, and is then stored in a vault in Svalbard’s permafrost.
The structure is separated into two volumes – the entrance and the exhibition building. The former displays a stoic and rather plain, geometric form, and includes a lobby, space for ticketing, wardrobe, café, and facilities regarding production for the Arctic World Archive and technical rooms. This volume rests on pile foundations sitting on the bedrock below, while its roof accommodates solar panels to harvest energy from the sun. Solid wall discs of wood along with a structural frame of cross laminated timber forms the rectangular building mass. The entrance building’s interior features exposed wooden elements, clad with burnt wood and dark panels of glass. To avert heating of the permafrost and snow accumulation, it is suspended off the ground.
In contrast to the entrance building, the later volume stands out in form, colour and texture, evident in its unique shape, scale and spatial experience. An organic form emerging from the ice-covered ground, the exhibition building symbolically reveals the stratification of the earth’s surface. The white, striated exterior appears as a solid monolith, its outer envelope shaped by the erosion inherent to the site’s often extreme weather conditions.
The exhibition building is accessible through a glass bridge, where visitors are also assembled into smaller groups. While on the bridge they are exposed to the vast surroundings, from the soaring formations of the south, glorious views to the north and the concentrated white monolith that is the exhibition building, all from a single vantage point.
The exhibition building houses the dramatic vertical vault containing a mighty digital archive of permanent and temporary exhibits. Information stored inside the Arctic World Archive and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault can be retrieved by the visitors visually, from the ground level floorboards. The vaults currently contain substantial collections ranging from Edvard Munch’s art, the Vatican’s 1,500-year-old manuscripts, to film clips of the Brazilian football player Pelé and the largest assortment of the world’s seeds. All of this is experienced by wall projections, managed by touch screens, virtual reality experiences, and several other physical and digital exhibit elements.
Visitors are greeted inside the vault with muted lighting and a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius, furthering the experiential space of being inside a real chamber. The ceremony room is positioned at the centre of the vault, an auditorium which can function as a space for reflection, and can be used for digital projections, deposit ceremonies for the vaults, lectures and talks. An enormous deciduous tree acts as the ceremony room’s centre piece, representative of previously grown vegetation on Svalbard, dating back to more than 200 million years, and as a call for action – to preserve nature and to preserve the Arctic.
The Arc stands as a testimony of the past, and as an inspirational education for its visitors, displaying solutions to preserve the world’s food and digital resources. Snøhetta has designed a compelling icon, accentuating a thirst to protect the resources of the world for its current and future inhabitants, and demonstrative of the Arctic in all it’s timeless, desolate beauty and quietude.
Name of the project: The Arc
Location: Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway