07 January 2010

the ice huts of Lake Nipissing

Weather-causing architecture
Steve Sopinka

Every winter, the waters of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario freeze solid. The result is a frozen icescape, 875 square kilometres transformed into new territory for snowmobilers, cross country skiers, snowshoers and ice fishers. There is something intriguing about the reclamation of the frozen water — even more captivating are the ice-fishing huts that begin to appear and evolve into an ad-hoc frozen shanty village. These structures capture the eye of the prefab enthusiast, the mobile-architecture buff, the Ministry of Natural Resources and, most importantly, ice fishers who are reminded that fishing comrades are ‘out there’ and they are not. On Lake Nipissing, weather defines an incidental, accidental architecture.

If there is an architecture that has almost no cost, is void of conscious architectural style and exceeds the expectations of its dweller — the ice-fishing hut could very well be it. Depending on your need for comfort and your ideas of how to outfit an ice-hut, your hut may or may not begin to look like your neighbour’s. The list of materials used is both long and unconventional: used lithograph plates, recycled wood pallets, metal flashing (and lots of it), discarded road signs and $1 trouble lights. Rigid styrofoam SM insulation is an interior finish. A converted greenhouse and an old garden shed have been given second life as ice huts.
Given their often slapped-together construction, their random assemblage of otherwise discarded materials into ad hoc shelter, does considering ice huts as architecture give them too much credit? Maybe the taxonomy isn’t important. It isn’t to the ice fishers – it’s all about the fishing – just ask any of the inhabitants. Try to talk architecture or even building, and the conversation inevitably ends up in a discussion about lures, ice augers and more importantly, the weather.

Maybe it isn’t about the fish or the architecture. The most compelling aspect of experiencing these ice huts is the visual transformation of water into ice – to see the massive frozen expanse that begins underfoot and disappears into the horizon. The formation of this newly constructed icescape, brought on by the change in weather, is what is most fascinating.
We talk about buildings being connected to site, integrated with their surroundings, symbiotic with the landscape. An ice hut integrates directly with the snow-covered ice surface of the lake, literally freezing to the ‘site,’ as currents and wind shift the ice. There is something strangely indigenous about these huts. They have become something familiar — an icon, a symbol, a retreat, a weather vane, a black dot in an otherwise uninterrupted landscape.

The heroic effort of constructing a small hut, transporting it out onto the ice by snowmobile, maintaining it and securing it from being blown away during a sustained wind storm lies in the larger idea of weather-causing architecture: an ephemeral building, upon a temporary landscape, within a unique season. The ice hut grows out of the collective phenomena of weather and architecture where these two entities meet in a typology of low-tech habitation full of simplicity and honesty.

The idea of transformation, mobility, temporality and resourcefulness, combined with weather, over time, equals one ice-fishing season on Lake Nipissing. Land artist Andy Goldsworthy has said that ‘a landscape doesn’t have to involve land – time is a landscape’.

Why does an ice-covered lake in Northern Ontario accommodate some of the most honest, dynamic, and vulnerable architecture to have evolved directly out of the weather? It is both out of necessity and functionality, but also is underpinned by the seasonal climate change that reclaims of a body of water and establishes static boundaries usually unassociated with such undefined and expansive territory.

The ice huts demonstrate and reveal value as objects, as shelter, as a means to survive and simply as a way to connect with uncommon ‘ground’. The weather, the economy and current architecture trends all have something in common, but the ice hut has a life of its own. It is sustainable by default. It has the potential to weather the climate and recession with resilience.

Sopinka, Steve. 'Weather-causing Architecture' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Steve Sopinka and On Site review

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