Giulia Foscari / UNLESS (eds.)
Lars Müller Publishers
Hardcover, 992 pages / 1255 illustrations, € 50
Lands doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness and never once to feel the warmth of the Sun’s rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe; such are the lands we have discovered… whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than I have done, I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it.
James Cook, 1770
Antarctic Resolution, a monumental new “1000 page study of Antarctica’s architectural, historical, ecological and climatic peculiarities” from Lars Müller Publishers, traces the history of the southernmost continent from the early “Heroic Age” explorers up through the present. The book sets out to map the world’s least-known continent in numerous ways: cartographically, to be sure, but also chronologically (in both human and geological scales) and sociologically. Via dozens of essays and hundreds of maps and photos, the book creates a multidimensional model of Antarctica, with contributions from a diverse group of experts in science, history, ecology, architecture, and even art and literature. The essays are grouped into thematic chapters with unusually vivid and evocative names for a science-focused book (“Antarctic Pie”, “Twenty-Six Quadrillion Tons of Ice”, “The Ideological Use of Relics”), which serve more as prompts for creative thought than strictly organizational designations.
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Dome City. Courtesy of © United States Navy; US Antarctic Program, National Science Foundation.
Fittingly, the project itself, though containing extensive scientific perspectives from leading researchers, is framed first and foremost as an artistic inquiry, or an interrogation of the relationship humans have developed with Earth’s only uninhabited continent. The occasion of both the book’s publication and the corresponding installation at the Venice Architectural Biennale is the two-hundredth anniversary of the first official landing on Antarctica by John Davis in 1821 – though as numerous essays in the book attest, the southernmost continent existed in the human imagination for thousands of years before it was finally reached, was spotted from afar in numerous earlier accounts, and may have been explored by seafarers from the global south hundreds or even thousands of years before its “official” discovery date.
Visually, the book uses a bold but minimalist color scheme, with contributors’ texts in black and the editorial voice in fluorescent orange, and introductions to each section in silver, with different-colored blocks of text interlocking like so many ice floes. These three colors are used in the majority of the book’s maps, charts, and infographics as well, and the ubiquity of this color palette serves as a unifying aesthetic for the book as a whole, orienting text and image toward the same goal of minimalist clarity. It’s a welcome approach for what could easily become an overwhelming subject. With many of the book’s photographs, even those in color, understandably dominated by shades of white, gray and black, the bright-orange text, captions, and graphics go beyond being a design choice to serve a similar wayfinding purpose as the real-life orange flags at the edges of human-designated areas in the monochromatic Antarctic wilds.
In another intentional design choice, the book’s original maps are designed with south at the top, as the standard explorer’s idea of orienting “northward” in Antarctica leads to its own snowblind-like bewilderment:
Rear Admiral Richard Byrd’s ‘Must soon turn north’ note is a powerful reminder that, close to the South Pole, all directions are North. Hence, all the architectural drawings published in the ‘Archive of Antarctic Architecture’ are oriented towards South.
While the book’s maps show exceeding precision and detail, the authors also acknowledge that “mapping” Antarctica in the classic sense is something of a lost cause. The continent’s shape is defined by its indescribably vast covering of ice, which shifted immensely from year to year and century to century even before the added effects of climate change in recent decades.
Most of the final one-third of the book’s thousand-page bulk consists of the Archive of Antarctic Architecture, which seeks to present as complete a picture as possible of Antarctica’s existing structures while simultaneously challenging the idea that such structures as a whole are warranted:
It is hard to say with exactitude how many structures have been erected in Antarctica since our first landing on the continent in 1821, exactly 200 years ago, but it is a fact that there are too many. While advocating for the day in which nations will cease to overtly assert territorial claims through architecture, the Archive presents for the first time a selection of unedited drawings of experimental buildings constructed below the 60th parallel south.
The resulting survey spans 122 years, from the Cape Adare Hut (built in 1899 and still standing) all the way up to the host of recent constructions by a global array of rising powers including India, China, and South Africa. The combination of these more modern structures’ bizarre geometries and the overall dearth of natural landmarks give the section’s maps a distinctly off-world, science-fiction feel; indeed, various contributors explore the similarities between explorations of Antarctica and outer space (with the latter in some cases being the more accessible).
The Archive’s most fascinating feature, however, is its inclusion of lost, sunken, destroyed, or otherwise doomed structures. These include Shackleton’s ship Endurance (placed precisely at its last known location in the Weddell Sea as a fluorescent-orange, ship-shaped footprint) and the Soviet hut at the Pole of Inaccessibility that was eventually buried in the snow and ice. That many of these “lost” structures not only might still exist, but could even be rediscovered as Antarctic ice melts in the coming decades, offers a unique variant on the usual definitions of “abandoned” structures – something akin to a cryogenic architecture.
The tantalizingly creepy idea of structures, objects, and bodies buried in the ice and waiting to emerge – once just a possibility, but with current climate trajectories now a certainty – has informed speculative literature about the continent for centuries, from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness to John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?, famously adapted into The Thing. As various essays in the book suggest, ideas of monstrous beings and ancient civilizations in the southernmost continent have existed for millennia, developing side-by-side with explorers’ accounts of mysterious frozen lands and mountains rising from the sea. Such mythologies have continued to persist in the modern age of exploration, particularly the “hollow earth” theory (with its entrance at the South Pole), which has been fueled by Admiral Byrd’s cryptic line about delivering “the message from the Master” to his superiors for the better part of a century.
Calving Architecture: The Archeology of the Debris. Courtesy of British Antarctic Survey Archives Service, Archives ref. AD6/19/4/1/X/AA31. © A. Alsop, 1995
By far the most urgent and pressing human effect on the Antarctic environment is climate change, and it looms large in the book. Numerous essays discuss the degradation that has already occurred to Antarctica’s ecosystems as well as the staggering resource cost in maintaining bases and housing permanent populations on the continent. The specter of unchecked, irreversible global warming, and the corresponding glacial melt and sea level rises it would bring, present a truly catastrophic scenario when applied to the Antarctic ice pack. With terms such as “doomsday glacier” becoming common among polar scientists, individual glaciers and ice sheets have even been assigned reciprocal values in sea level rises. It’s a bleak prospect, but one that the book never shies away from, instead choosing to present it as the next Antarctic challenge for humanity to overcome. Still, the breakneck pace of scientific progress made on the continent in the past century – best represented by the Icecube Neutrino Laboratory with its sensors placed a staggering 2.5 kilometers into the ice – offers a counterpoint to the strategic and military presence that has motivated much of the continent’s exploration, and provides a glimmer of hope that innovation can still serve the common good, rather than nationalistic and military ends, on an increasingly fragile continent.
Throughout as well are several photo essays, which apart from short introductions are presented without captions or commentary. With photos ranging from Paolo Pellegrin’s stark, almost geometric aerial views to Jean de Pomereu’s minimalist white-on-white landscapes to Joan Myers’ stunning wildlife shots, these sections provide a refreshing non-verbal counterpoint to the dense and intertwined texts that make up the majority of the book, and offer a glimpse – however fleeting – of how Antarctica looked prior to its human exploration.
The scope and scale of Antarctic Resolution (both textually and physically, as the book weighs several kilograms and can stand on its side as easily as it can lie flat) are fitting to the vastness of its subject. Even in Google Earth, the all-seeing eye of the 21st century, Antarctica appears as a patchwork quilt of imperfect photos, with mismatched color gradients and qualities and often taken at different times of year (or in different years or decades altogether). The noble goal of Antarctic Resolution is to create a new map of the continent with a 1:1 scale by overlaying data, maps, photographs, and firsthand accounts from a dizzying plurality of sources. The resulting document of Antarctica – fractal, layered, protean – is in many ways more illuminating than a more standard and straightforward approach might have produced, and fitting for a continent that changes shape and size over weeks and months rather than millennia.