Iceland serves as a first destination in the string of travels I will be embarking upon for the Rotch scholarship. I find it uniquely relevant as a starting point for the research to follow on mining palimpsests for future speculations, as Iceland's palimpsest is both so radical and rapidly shifting. The energy landscape to which its architecture is inextricably yoked is both violent and insuperable, provoking a kind of grounded speculation I wish to engage--through different place-specific terms--within each research destination.
Iceland is volcanically and geologically active, experiencing dozens of eruptions, earthquakes, and disturbances annually. Lava flows periodically reshape its landscape, while changing geothermal dynamics can shift bodies of water from bathing spa to boiling heat source, or icy lake from decade to decade. The landscape is young, changing, and active.
Despite this, the country lives in relative ease with the often destructive changeability of its landscape, deriving nearly all of its energy from renewable geothermal and hydroelectric sources, casually monitoring magma chambers and openly active fissures. Its landscape varies from openly erupting lava fields to smoldering plains, icy tundra, fertile valleys, or boiling mudfields.
Iceland evidences abundant geologic energy, a small portion of which has been harnessed to supply the country's energy needs, but much of which remains to be tapped. Many sites for geomerthal plants have been identified, but the country's small population of approximately 320,000 has already largely met its energy consumption needs.
However, In 2012, the UK and Iceland entered into discussions regarding a possible direct energy conduit between the two countries which would allow Iceland to tap into greater energy demands, and expand its energy producing potential. This seems like a piece of science fiction about to become real: a young, energy-rich and brutal newer world providing an energy pipeline to an older and calmer landscape. The island nation in its entirety can serve as an energy producing outpost on the frontier. This seems to point to a possible future in renewables where harsh, formerly uninhabitable landscapes become ripe for architectural development in order to harvest geologic or climatic brutality, in the process allowing a new kind of architectural co-habitation with contextual extremes.
This kind of co-habitation can already be seen: geothermal plants like the Krafla power station, planned in 1973, were built atop actively erupting fissures. Krafla experienced 9 eruptions from 1975 onwards during construction, but continues to expand its capacity today. Volcanic soil is often rich and the advantages of proximity to geothermal energy are significant, often spawning whole series of child industries which feed off even the waste products of the geothermal plant. Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon--perhaps the nation's most famous tourist destination--is entirely created by waste water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal plant, and situated amidst tortured black lava fields. Rich in blue-green algae, mineral salts and silica mud, an entire ecosystem of industries and architecture from tourism to cosmetics production have grown around the site. Excess concrete and building materials from the Burfell hydroelectricity plant are used to literally construct the adjacent Pjorsardalslaug heated pool, while at Frost og Funi, hotels sit atop quaking geothermal fields that are constantly belching out boiling water, steam and oozing mud.
The thinness of the earth's crust often allows for vast fields of heated earth, allowing for colonies of greenhouses to grow hothouse tomatoes throughout the brutal Icelandic winter. At Bjarnarflag, the temptation to harness as much energy and build as closely to the energy source as possible has been akin to drinking from a fire hydrant. Rich soil in combination with extreme geothermal energy have spawned a string of failed economic ventures which have inevitably been unable to cope with the amount of energy in the earth, with attempts to grow potatoes often emerging from the ground boiled.
We are used to conflict between energy extraction and human habitation in the case of fossil fuels. Fracking and oil drilling inevitably lead to disastrous results in proximity to organic life: contaminated, flammable groundwater, oil slicks and oil spills to name a few. However, Iceland provides a look into a new paradigm which reverses this dynamic, promoting instead a closely intertwined co-habitation with renewable energy extraction in extreme environments, which can produce entire new ecosystems of machine architectures which deliver upon the Corbusien promise of a Machine for Living, injecting it with a new urgency in the form of an energy imperative. In this context, Archigram's visionary Walking and Plug-In cities develop a contemporary relevance to current energy and environmental concerns. Indeed, such mobile cities would be essential in the constantly shifting landscape of such extreme environments where renewable energy extraction is richest. For now, Iceland simply copes with continuing eruptions and the changing landscape by building anew and accepting catastrophic events like the 2008 earthquake which reshaped the Hverageroi geothermal fields. Formerly conflicting drives between the modernist/futurist dream of the machine and contemporary environmental awareness are realigned in this paradigm to produce a machine architecture of symbiosis.
Too often, speculation on alternative relationships between architecture and environmental concerns leads to design solutions which provoke but ultimately are relegated to the world of science fiction out of a lack of believable economic incentive. The fundamental driver for such a paradigm shift in architecture and its occupation is ill-considered in most briefs, with most architects focusing instead on the spatial and architectural ramifications, producing beautiful but ultimately irrelevant dreams.
However, a direct link in Iceland between landscape, power and architecture is immediately apparent. Networks of pipelines cross steaming and hissing lava fields, while futuristic architectures stand in isolation, belching steam and boiling water in brilliant shades of blue. The similarity to a science fiction image of a moon colony is merited: Iceland has served as the training grounds for multiple Apollo missions, with Neil Armstrong and 9 out of 12 astronauts to set foot on the moon having trained in Iceland. Even cinema has capitalized on the extreme nature of Iceland's landscape: Jules Verne set Snaefell Glacier as the setting for his famous Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Ridley Scott's Prometheus opens at Dettifoss.
Imagery aside, Iceland provides a real and current imperative for the invention of new machine architectures to provide models for energy extraction and co-habitation according to inexorable trends in the global energy market.