Reconstructions: Narratives of Arctic Drift
Elyse Kavanagh @ M.Arch Graduate Thesis, University of British Columbia
Architecture begins with a drawing, a representation of a place not yet existing, and then through measurements and tools those representations become real space. I am interested in the reverse process – revealing the role of representation and communication in reconstructing spaces that are remote, inaccessible, and in the case of Arctic drift stations – temporary.
This project operates between the speculative, propagative, and informative narratives and the sites of the real–the research stations, instruments, and landscapes of the Arctic. The stories manifest through real activities and constructed narratives from floating research stations operating in the Arctic throughout the last century. These Ice islands have broken off from larger coastal ice slabs and have been inhabited by research teams for years at a time, recording, documenting, and drifting around the Arctic Circle and eventually disassembling into non-places. The Arctic drift stations are sites that are deployed and dismantled dissolving from inhabitable terrain into water. They exist as heterotopic floating gleaners of information. Information that is translated and fed into narratives that reconstruct and reconfigure our understanding of the Arctic. The drift stations are defined by their inherent placelessness. All that is left are the documents and the artifacts of what was collected; from these, a place can be re-constructed. The narratives play out at the scale of the drift station but reveal shifting grand narratives that are global in scale.
Each narrative has a master drawing mapping out the relationships between each set of representations. The narrative is interpreted through layers of referencing. Through each drawing set, connections can be discovered, and the stories are revealed.
The presentation of this project included projections that animate each drawing. These projections layer a temporal element on top of the fixed drawings, and also become a representation of the reader’s own projections as they understand these narratives.
Who influences you graphically?
In looking to situate this work within the work of other architects, I found myself looking to precedents that privilege the act of drawing as a process rather than a product. Perry Kulper has said that he uses drawing as a rehearsal for design. His complex collages operate as devices to test out spatial relationships, becoming generative tools within his design practice. As graphic objects, I love that his works are able to convey this process. Smout Allen was another precedent I looked to often throughout this project. Their work relies on architectural narrative to describe complex ideas. They communicate stories through the design of buildings and devices that often exist only in the realm of whimsical drawings and models.
The conventional architectural drawing set was my inspiration for how these drawings are read and operate as a collection. As a set, the drawings organize information through methods of reference, shifts in scale, and degrees of specificity. The collection is fragmented but prescriptive, with individual drawings lacking the clarity that the assemblage as a whole provides.
What prompted you to approach this speculative project?
I am interested in the power of representation, not just as a tool to communicate, but its ability to alter perceptions through what it does and doesn’t reveal. I was researching the ideas of James Corner, Marshal McLuhan, Robin Evans, among others theorizing on the role of representation as an acting force on our environment. How we represent place influences our understanding of the world around us, but it also has the capacity to alter place as our interpretations are fed back into these environments.
Myth and narrative have historically functioned as strategies towards constructing our ideas about faraway territories. The Arctic Circle presented as an ideal location to examine the concepts I was researching. It exists, for most of us, as re-constructed space. As a remote crest of the world, the Arctic is translated and constructed from the collection, documentation, and dissemination of information. The Arctic has always been a reflection and reinterpretation the world outside of it. Ice island drift stations are floating gatherers of information and offer placeless locations and sites for grander layered narratives to be told through. They shift, shrink, grow, and span large bodies of water — while simultaneously occupying relatively little space. They exist periodically and liminally, leaving only slight traces of their existence.
What other projects and methods of working and talking about representation, fragments and archipelago did you look to?
Methods of telling and understanding History influenced the methodology for this project. History is a hybridization of information assembled into narratives about places, people, and environments. There is a slippage between what is fact, what is fiction, and what isn’t quite either. In the past, information was shared primarily through narrative and illustration. Whereas today, advancements in instruments and technologies used to disseminate information, although precise in their collection, are not necessarily more truthful in their presentation.
There is a diagram by Robin Evans describing the relationships and transformations between the designed object, the graphic projection, the image, and the observer, with their perception and imagination. The diagram describes the connections between the continuous, fragmented, and nonlinear processes of design. I have operated with a similar logic, but with the direct link between the Arctic drift stations and the observer omitted. Reconstructions: Narratives of Arctic Drift looks at a place that is inaccessible and for the most part no longer exists, but from which these other modes of projections and methods of communication do remain. Through assembling, interpreting, and manipulating the fragments of information these three narratives were reconstructed.
What tools did you when reverting this process? what was your work process?
My intention was for the process to be investigative, iterative and blur the boundaries between modes of representation. The creation of a drawing doesn’t typically begin with an awareness of an end point; rather, it evolves and reveals unexpected methods of describing relationships. Each drawing becomes a propagative device, forming relationships between sometimes-fragmented bits of information. The process involves continuously moving between analogue and digital. I sketch, scan, collage, print, and repeat.
As a methodology, I try to iterate quickly, preferring to avoid hesitation. The intention is for the drawing to be indexical of the process, not just a graphic object. I attempt to layer into the work an indication that there is an author through which the information has been filtered. The presentation drawings tend to be more deliberate in their presentation. In that way, the process of creating a single drawing becomes equivalent to the iterative process of design.
What role do the views hold in relation to these ‘fragments maps’? How are these assembled within the masterplan to direct and dictate the viewers gaze?
The narrative fragments range in specificity, spatial and temporal scale, and modes of representation. Some drawings are data driven quantitative assemblages of information, while other drawings depict abstract ideas and events. The map is what pulls all these disparate fragments together, generating context. These maps were created with the intention of forming relationships, while maintaining an ambiguous hierarchy. Reflecting how information merges and overlaps to generate reconstructed narratives within reality, the narratives are not necessarily linear. The choice to present the individual drawings arranged as a field allows the viewer to start at anyone point and begin to reference between fragments, drawing together their own narrative.
What lead you to explore the medium of the projection?
Projection presented an opportunity for additional layers of information and meaning to be collaged over the project. As a metaphor, the projections overlaid onto the static modes of representation ran parallel to the ideas I was exploring. These projections become representations of the reader’s own perceptions as they read and understand the stories. It also provided a method through which I could succinctly present a version of the narratives. Subtly animating the 2d representations offered a focused and choreographed presentation through the field of drawings and models.
What is your take on contemporary representation and its digital tools?
Contemporary modes of representation are integral to my process. I enjoy operating between analog and digital methods of production – taking a sketch and turning it into an animated projection, or pivoting between mediums multiple times within one layered drawing. The three overlapping narratives in this project operate to depict shifts from analog to digital. This is reflected in the content, tools of information collection, and through methods of representation.
The conduits through which we perceive the world around us are in a constant state of change. The devices used to measure and translate the landscapes we inhabit into maps for example have transformed significantly over the last century. With satellite imagery, our world has become scalable and accessible like never before. However, these maps still privilege static information. Unless physical traces have been left on the landscape, temporal processes and events are left unseen. I am acutely aware of the importance of the representative methods we choose and their affect on how information is understood and interpreted. I strive to be intentional about what is represented, how it is represented, and how the devices, and tools used to generate these representations shape and conflate our readings.
To what extent has this project influences how your work and operate as an architect?
As architects, we are continuously working towards understanding our built environment and the social conditions of space. Through this project, I am placing the emphasis on the influence of representation in the understanding and formation of spaces. Architects work through visual and verbal descriptions that essentially operate as narratives for unbuilt places. We use architectural drawings to describe a process that involves precise measurements, tools, and instruments so that those representations can be interpreted and translated, resulting in the construction of a building. Through the narrative of the architect’s drawings, models, details, and specifications, a real place is created. This process becomes a reverse analogy for the transformative process places like the remote Arctic go through as they are instrumentalized, recorded, measured and become re-constructed, simulated representations of real places that are then disseminated through various forms of media.