Resolute Bay, Ralph Erskine and the Arctic Utopia

Resolute Bay
Ralph Erskine
Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada
74° 41′ 45″ N, 094° 49′ 45″ W

In the 1950s, following its High Arctic Relocation Program, the Canadian government deported Inuit families to form the colony of Resolute Bay as a means of ensuring its supremacy over the Arctic lands. In 1970, architect Ralph Erskine was asked to design a project to solve the structural problems caused by this process.

Ralph Erskine, the arctic architect

Ralph Erskine (1914-2005) was an English architect and urban planner although most of his built work is in Sweden. Even if he built projects that were recognized in England, the Swedish social welfare model that was being transmitted in the country’s public architecture was more in line with his humanist convictions. Moreover, he found in Sweden the functionalist masters Gunnar Asplund, Sven Markelius and Sigurd Lewerentz who greatly influenced his work.
One of his first important projects was the workers’ housing district in Gyttorp (1945-1955), a Swedish workers’ city, where he implemented a new typology of social housing and redesigned the city center. Another of his early projects, the Borgafjäll ski resort hotel (1948-1950), illustrates the architect’s early interest in the notions of climate and domestic architecture, which he questioned for almost 60 years on the basis of modernist principles. Indeed, the English architect discovered in Sweden a more hostile climate and a different relationship to nature, parameters that impacted his work.

Arctic Town Ralph Erskine 1970

In 1959, at the last CIAM congress organized by TEAM 10, Erskine presented The Subarctic Habitat. The projects presented at the meeting had to provide solutions to problems of habitat in extreme contexts. Later Erskine published an article “Architecture and town planning in the north” where he proposed a specific Arctic architecture, adapted to the harsh climate, and dedicated to indigenous populations. this theorical experience  made him, in the eyes of the international community, the unofficial arctic architect.

Resolute Bay and the relocation program

Resolute Bay also known as Qausuittuqᖃᐅᓱᐃᑦᑐᖅ  (place with no dawn), is located on Cornwallis Island, 800 km north of the Arctic Circle in Nunavut. It is one of the northernmost inhabited settlements in the world, and thus suffers from isolation, long periods of darkness as well as average temperatures well below 0 (about -15°C and as low as -50°C in winter). Resolute Bay is located at the extreme north of the Northwest Passage, and is therefore a privileged point of territory to defend and occupy. In 1943, the Canadian and United States governments built a research base, the High Arctic Weather Stations, but the Canadian government wanted a year-round occupation of these lands to ensure its sovereignty. This colony was installed by the Canadian government in the 1950’s following a controversial process that has until today, its consequences in the community.

In 1953, as part of its High Arctic Relocation Program, the Canadian government selected a few Inuit families from Inukjuak (then know as Port Harrison) in northern Arctic Quebec and settled them in Resolute Bay. Others will be relocated to Grise Fiord ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ also known as Aujuittuq (place that never thaws ) on the south side of Ellesmere Island. A total of 92 Inuit will be forcibly relocated to the Canadian Arctic with the promise of adequate support to survive this new hostile environment, support that will never be assured. It had been promised that Inuit could return after one year in case of dissatisfaction, a promise never kept by the government, it would have undermined their supremacy over these lands. Subsequently, the government wanted to recruit young women from Inukjuak communities to be sent to Resolute in order to increase the colony’s chances of evolution. Displaced from their traditional lands to the high arctic in a land where wildlife was scarce, the weather conditions were deplorable, and the skies were constantly overcast, the result was a disastrous failure leading the community to extreme poverty. This policy of land occupation bears witness to the segregation of the Inuit populations who lived almost 1000 km below the Arctic Circle before being exiled to a totally hostile territory. Afterwards the residents of Resolute logically expressed strong resentment against the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the Canadian government.

Resolute Bay

All pictures are from © Matthew Jull

A cohabitation marked by segregation

By 1970, Resolute was operating at the pace of the Inuit populations that cohabited with the cycles of scientists coming and going from the settlement. The Canadian government saw an opportunity to develop mining and oil exploration in the region. The Department of Northern Affairs seized the opportunity to associate the development of the Resolute airbase with the expansion of the colony. It was planned to partially employ Inuit in parallel functions related to the operations. As early as 1955 the department had proposed a second deportation stage in Resolute, the Inuit had to unload the planes that arrived at the airbase without being able to take advantage of the food contained in these convoys and on top of that had to build their own camp. The cohabitation was far from being perfect between the scientific base and the Inuit camp, the latter having little to eat and being forced to search in the garbage of the base to find leftover food and clothing. This cohabitation in Resolute was a parameter to be integrated in the 1970 project of extension and perpetuation of the settlement.

Arctic Town in Resolute Bay

English architect Ralph Erskine was invited by the Canadian government to propose his ideas for the new city of Resolute Bay. Erskine saw the project as an opportunity to combine his skills in cold-climate urban design with the possibility of experimenting with physical and social planning that would allow for the ethnic integration of Arctic communities. This prototype would allow to combine land use with social programs in a hostile and fundamentally poor territory. The challenge was also to associate the amalgamation of the Inuit populations with the transitional personnel of the base (engaged in scientific activities on seasonal contracts).

Resolute Bay Ralph Erskine 1970
Resolute Bay Ralph Erskine 1970 Plan Section House
Living wall design and failure of the project

The proposed design follows a horseshoe shape with a peripheral “living wall” made of apartments and townhouses for the participants of the various scientific missions. At the heart of this horseshoe would be grouped the dwellings of Inuit families, allowing them to be spatially and socially at the center of the city’s life. The living wall would form a castle wall to protect from bad weather and close the inner sanctum, an example already partly tested in Svappavaara in Sweden. Following this principle, the living wall adapts to the landscape, going up, down and extending according to the topography.

Resolute Bay Ralph Erskine 1970 Inn

Finally, this wall design enveloping the houses was considered an idea that could reproduce the segregation mechanism, with whites surrounding and watching over the Inuit from their high apartments. This metaphorical layout reproduces the feeling of humans at the zoo, creating a paradox: in the project wanted by the authorities, the Inuit could not be separated from the scientists in an urban design, but their daily and annual life was different. Moreover, the wall was made to protect an interior space from the wind, but the Inuit were less concerned about the wind and more about the evacuation of the snow, unlike the seasonal residents. Finally, the choice of the site, towards the hills, kept the Inuit away from the sea, an indispensable source of marine hunting, forced them to relocate once again and gave an advantage to the airbase personnel who were only passing through. In 1973 the project was already full of concessions and in 1978, after starting a small part of the housing block, the project was abandoned. Lack of funding hinders expansion of scientific activities (in addition to all the structural problems) and finally condemns the project. All that remains today is a bar of unfinished townhouses, named South Camp Inn, and the Inuit dwellings relocated more than a kilometer from the coast. Although Erskine wanted to involve them in the project, they have been neglected, displaced, even harassed, and finally unable to improve their daily lives. In 1990, finally, many of the elders were able to return with their families to their homeland.

Erskine's study for arctic areas in the 50’s

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