Beyond Nations

Designed by a British architect and built by a British construction company, The British Antarctic Survey’s new research base, known as Halley VI, on the Brunt Ice Shelf is on one level an expression of the best in contemporary design from the UK. Approximately 1.2 metres of snow accumulate each year on the Brunt Ice Shelf and buildings on the surface become covered and eventually crushed by snow, necessitating periodic rebuilding of the station. This part of the ice shelf is also moving westward by approx. 700m per year.

This harsh environment was described in the brief for an international competition which was won by Hugh Broughton Architects who created a modular system of monocoque units on hydraulic jacks that can survive the most perilous of conditions.It is a typically bold move by the British Antarctic Survey: a fascinating, dynamic institution who has cleverly used architecture and design to further its aim to explore and scientifically examine the most uninhabitable corner of the globe.

Halley VI also represents the union between two of the most well regarded facets of the United Kingdom’s industry: design and scientific research. The Halley Research base was made famous by the British scientists who whilst working here in the 1980s made one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the modern age – the discovery of the hole in the o-zone layer, which led directly to the banning of CFCs. Yet as the project manager for the complex construction of the base on a shifting ice flow told me: ‘the Antarctic is no place for jingoism.’

Instead Halley VI is both a symbol and a product of the way in which Britain is playing a key role in the unique ecology of collaboration that exists between the 47 nations who have an interest in Antarctica. For example, Halley VI is clad in glass-reinforced plastic (GRP). The cladding must cope with typical winter temperatures of -20 degrees centigrade. Although it has been wrought into new forms to provide top class research and accommodation space for the British base, Hugh Broughton Architects were able to study the way GRP dealt with the conditions through studying Neumayer-Station III, a German base that had used the material. Broughton who is also designing a facility for Spain has adapted and used the same material. There are numerous instances of this kind of collaboration throughout the project.

Indeed the only way that any base can be sustained in Antarctica is through both formal and informal systems of international collaboration. Informally, scientists will stay at foreign bases if they need, for example, to take ice samples in their vicinity. They stay with each other throughout the winter. Scientists from one nation will place fuel in strategic refueling positions to help teams from other nations. Their lives literally depend on each othe

On a formal level, the Antarctic Treaty System creates consensus about how to keep Antarctica pollution-free as well as free from any arms. Halley VI sits within a truly neutral space. The first two articles in the main treaty in the system state that the area should ‘be used for peaceful purposes only’ and that ‘freedom of scientific investigations and cooperation shall continue’ within the continent. One senses that the increasing number of scientists from an increasing number of nations on Antarctica is caused as much by a collective desire to have a presence should that system change as much to enjoy it now.

In the mean time though, the very reason for the base’s existence – scientific study – is also dependent on an international structure of peer review and contributing evidence. As Newton put it, ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Nowhere on earth reveals the truth of this statement more than Antarctica.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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