Igloos

I love natural materials in architecture. I love the usual suspects, like wood and stone, but I also love the ones that are a bit more 'out there'. Igloos are some of the most natural homes in Canada. They're all snow and ice!

Ever wanted to know how igloos are built? The National Film Board has a film titled "How to Build an Igloo". The one they show was built in an hour and a half, using only snow! You'll have to pardon the use of the word "Eskimo" and the condescending language that they use to refer to the Inuit igloo-builders - the film was released in 1949. Despite the offensive terminology, it's fascinating to find out how the igloo works.

The snow needs to be hard enough that it packs well but not so hard that it can't be cut through with a knife. How does it all stay together? Snow blocks that are to be joined together are rubbed with a knife at the edges - the rubbing melts the snow, creating a layer of water that refreezes soon after the block is placed. The wall is built in a slowly ascending spiral for added strength. Igloos are actually quite warm inside because of the insulation powers of the hard-packed snow. Just add body heat, and you've got a cozy warm shelter in the middle of the Arctic. That body heat, by temporarily melting the inner snow, continues to add strength to the structure.

Needless to say, igloos are very much integrated into their landscapes. They're certainly made from local materials. Some igloos are built entirely from snow from within their walls. Snow is a resource that is renewable, abundant and, most importantly, free.

photo: by fuzzy blue one courtesy of Pixdaus

The need for structural soundness in igloo architecture precludes ostentation. The domed shape directs the eyes downward, towards the inviting doorway and the surrounding plains of snow. It's safe to say that no one is going to be building the Leaning Igloo of Pisa (or Cambridge Bay) any time soon.

photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Looks like someone's set up their own (unkempt) ice garden around their bunker. Imagine the possibilities that come from being able to build your own front yard! I'd start by building a reindeer, then a carriage, then maybe, just maybe, a Santa Claus...

According to Watchers of the North, a well-built igloo can take the ambient temperature to 0 degrees Celsius. Not what city slickers consider 'warm', but it sure beats -40!

photo: courtesy of Watchers of the North

A majestic doorway to add some edge to the igloo's smooth surface and, more importantly, to keep the wind out. The fact that you only have one building material in no way means that you can't be creative. In fact, simplicity brings out beauty.

Edmonton's not exactly igloo country, but it's home to this multicoloured masterpiece:

photo: courtesy of designboom

While visiting girlfriend Kathleen Starrie's family in Edmonton, New Zealand engineering student Daniel Gray was commissioned (to put it nicely) by Starrie's mother to build a rainbow igloo. While most might resent such a request from the in-laws, Gray went at it with gusto. He filled milk cartons with coloured water and froze them to create the 500 translucent ice blocks, then enlisted the help of his girlfriend's family to put the whole thing together. Boyfriends the world over are hanging their heads in shame. Meanwhile, Gray has a monument to his relationship with Starrie...which will probably melt by spring. They'd better enjoy all the private time they can get in the igloo while it's still there.

(story and video here)

Watchers of the North [same link as above] also has some nifty instructions on building your own igloo. Those are conveniently free of the patronising tone that the 1949 NFB video takes.

Looking beyond the thing itself, why are Canadians so attached to the igloo? More worringly, why was Rick Mercer able to fool Americans into believing that Canada had built a temperature-controlled dome around its 'national igloo' to protect it from global warming? The more cynical among us say that the igloo has been appropriated by the Canadian government as a symbol promoting national unity. It's one of the very few things left that distinguishes us from our neighbour to the south. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (and its historical equivalents) has administered since 1958 an igloo trademark which certifies that a piece of art has been made by Inuit artists, a pretty good sign that many Canadians associate Inuitness with igloos.

I'll be one of the first to say that igloos are awesome. They're economical, sustainable, ingenious and beautiful. And global warming is working in tandem with southward population flows to turn the art of igloo construction into a lost one. We should appreciate the igloo while it's still around, but also try to achieve an understanding of Canada's northern peoples that goes beyond a pile of snow.

Research and Written by Josh Patlik, Student of International Development & Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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