The surreal beauty of Earth’s northernmost buildings

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written by Eva Rothenberg, Granthshala

The arctic invokes images of emptiness. The harsh temperatures lead to a barren, sparsely populated landscape beyond the reach of most travelers. This inaccessibility first attracted Austrian photographer Gregor Seller to the area.
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“I love this raw environment and this exciting light, where everything is exposed,” he said in a video interview, explaining that the Arctic has “always fascinated” him. “On the one hand, the forest wants to kill you, and on the other, life is possible and goes on. Things are happening in these remote places that affect all of us, and it is important for people to understand these events. ”

sailor’s new book, “The Polar Silk Road,” explores the Arctic through an architectural lens. Over the course of four years, the photographer visited Canada, Norway, Greenland and Iceland, capturing images of some of the northernmost structures in the world.

“It was clear from the start that there wasn’t much architecture in the Arctic, so I came back with relatively little material,” Sailor said of her early visits. They later shifted their focus to about a dozen remote scientific research facilities, military bases, and centers of economic development and raw material extraction.


The North Warning System (NWS) is an air defense early-warning radar system jointly manufactured by the United States and Canada. Credit: gregor the sailor

As in the region itself, these facilities are often harsh and cold. Composed of sharp geometric shapes and exposed structural elements, their functional forms stand out against the darkness of their environment.

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“I want my work to show the extremely exposed nature of these facilities,” Sailor said. “I try to get an idea of ​​the whole space I’m working in, and then I decide what details are important to capture in order to give outsiders access to this space.”

building in a barren landscape

While shooting the project, the cellar faced blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. He used an analog camera that doesn’t rely on batteries (which can quickly deplete in sub-freezing temperatures), giving him one less thing to worry about in extreme climates.

Working with physical film still leaves the photographer vulnerable to the elements, as it can easily be damaged or lost. Still, Seller prefers to work in analog: “Part of the game is exposure. It raises my consciousness, calms me and enhances my perception.”

At face value, the structures in the sailor’s images reveal little about their intended functions; Power lines suspended between antennas, satellite dishes and radar towers are found in military bases and research facilities alike. But the photographer said his images are more concerned with exploring how architecture operates within landscapes.

Eastgrip Research Facility in Greenland, where scientists drill into the ice sheet to understand past climatic conditions and the behavior of ice currents.

Eastgrip Research Facility in Greenland, where scientists drill into the ice sheet to understand past climatic conditions and the behavior of ice currents. Credit: gregor the sailor

“I wanted to capture a void that is not empty. It is important to me that the viewer feels the surroundings and dimensions of this vast, surreal landscape,” he explained, “I try to do this through observation shots (first), and then going into the details, so that viewers can get a better idea of ​​how these features work.”

Awareness of space in the “Polar Silk Road” is widespread. Sailor’s photographs emphasize the color and shape of the structures rather than their size, allowing the emptiness to give the viewer a broader sense of the surroundings.

Some buildings, such as the air defense radar tower in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada, are built from white or gray materials that blend almost seamlessly into the light canvas of the sky. Other photographs show small, brightly colored buildings in stark contrast to their white surroundings, such as those at the Eastgrip research facility in Greenland.

race for impact

The Arctic may have included large tracts of inaccessible land, but is now a subject of increasing geopolitical interest. Actors such as Russia, the United States and, more recently, China, are rushing to develop new shipping routes in the region.

Fitting, then, that Navigator borrowed the title of its project from China’s Polar Silk Road Initiative, a government-backed proposal for infrastructure and freight development in the Far North. The book’s name, like its contents, refers to the competition and cooperation that define international relations in this area.

Many of Sailor’s photographs are centered on the China-Iceland Arctic Observatory (CIAO), a joint effort between the two countries to collect data on solar-terrestrial interactions in polar environments, such as auroras. Elsewhere, the cellar refers to an Alaska base operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), an organization stemming from Cold War concern about Soviet technological developments, which monitors American and Canadian airspace.

The China-Iceland Arctic Observatory is the result of scientific collaboration between research institutions in both countries.

The China-Iceland Arctic Observatory is the result of scientific collaboration between research institutions in both countries. Credit: gregor the sailor

But territorial claims in the Arctic are about more than self-defense – they are about gaining control of resources hidden beneath melting ice such as oil and natural gas, writes Günter Kok, coordinator of international research programs at the Austrian Academy of Science. , in the book of the sailor.

Take, for example, the remote Arctic settlement of Tuktoyaktuk (which forms a chapter in the Book of the Sailors) on the shores of the oil-rich Beaufort Sea. In recent decades, oil and gas companies have invested heavily In the exploration and development of oil fields along the Beaufort Coast. Then, in 2016, the Canadian government announced that it was contributing 200 million Canadian dollars ($158 million) for a new highway that would “reduce the cost of living in Tuktoyaktuk … increase business development opportunities. , will reduce the cost of accessing onshore and offshore oil and gas opportunities, and strengthen Canada’s sovereignty in the North,” according to a government press release.

Climate change is the ‘motor’

There is one thread weaving together economic, military and scientific developments documented in his book, Sailor said: the growing threat of climate change.

Many of the buildings he photographed in Tuktoyaktuk are under threat from the continued erosion of permafrost. He explained that with their foundations being compromised, older structures have started to bend and the melting snow has caused them to sink into the ground.

“Climate change is the motor behind all events, and I wanted to document it,” Sailor said. “If the ice had not disappeared, these trade routes would not have appeared.”

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Many of the facilities in Seller’s book are devoted to understanding climate change – such as the ice-core drilling site in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where international researchers seek to better understand changing atmospheric and weather patterns over hundreds of thousands of years of ice formation. Let’s analyze.

Sailor hopes that, by publishing “The Polar Silk Road,” he can show the public how evolution in the Arctic influences — and is affected by — a changing climate.

“My job as a photographer is to visit these lesser-known places where things that affect our society are happening, and bring these events to light,” he said. “I present these photos with the hope of sparking a discussion, and with the hope that people will begin to think about these topics or consider the world around them in a new way.”

polar silk road, published by Kehrer Verlag, is now published. series pictures in the show At the Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography in Brunico, Italy until April 23, 2022.


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