With a name that sounds like the swashbuckling lead stud in a Harlequin bodice-ripper, Tristan da Cunha — population 302 — is a place so far-flung that it makes Barrow look like Times Square, Easter Island like Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at rush hour in comparison.
A damp, windswept speck of an island located in the middle – and we mean middle: it’s roughly equidistance between South America and South Africa, being just smidge closer to the latter — of the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunah refers both to a small archipelago of volcanic islands (the Nightingale Islands, Gough Island and the wonderfully monikered Inaccessible Island) as well as the largest — and only permanently populated — island in said archipelago.
The most isolated member of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the 38-square-mile island of Tristan da Cunha is also the most remote inhabited place on Earth. The tropical island of Saint Helena, with its modest adventure tourism trade, dramatically sited capital city, forthcoming international airport, Napoleon associations and really elderly giant tortoise named Jonathan, is Tristan da Cunha’s closest populated neighbor.
How close? Well, it’s over 1,200 miles away to the northeast.
Real civilization (not to insult beautiful St. Helena’s 4,000-plus residents) is located 1,700 miles away in Cape Town. Getting there requires a 7-day journey by boat through notoriously rough seas.
Tristan da Cunha: Welcome to the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Brian Gratwicke/flickr)
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan's only settlement, can be seen on the far right.(Photo: Brian Gratwicke/flickr)
But enough about the neighbors.
Tristan da Cunha — the “Lonely Isle” was named after the Portuguese explorer who discovered it in 1506, Tristầo da Cunha — is more than just a curiosity, a superlative, a place that most of us will never have the chance to visit. Despite having only one road, two churches and nary a Holiday Inn, the island’s only village, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas — best known simply as “the Settlement — is, in some ways, a lot like any other small town — a small town that just happens to be perched on the edge of an active volcano and where the community golf course is overrun with cows.
Home to 70 families of British citizenry who, together, form a close-knit agrarian society, the Settlement is a lively and harmonious place filled with the same kind of run-of-the-mill news and gossip you’d find in any other small farming community. No doubt, everyone knows each other’s business and then some.
The news section of Tristan da Cunha’s official website (yes, there’s Internet access, albeit very slow and expensive Internet access) is fascinating: there are birth, death and retirement announcements, fishing updates, job postings, sheep shearing reports, news of visiting vessels and event photos like the annual Pensioners Christmas Tea Party (many thanks to Jeanette for the sponge cake).
News tends to revolve around shipping (after all, shipping is the island’s most crucial link to the outside world) and there are frequent dispatches about handicrafts and postage stamps as the sale of handcrafted souvenirs (Love Socks are a hot seller) and commemorative Tristan da Cunha stamps is somewhat of a big deal. Not quite the moneymaker as the island’s primary source of income, the export of crawfish, but still a big deal.
Tristan da Cunha, however, isn’t some blissfully closed-off utopia immune to strife, tragedy and real-world hardships. Although very much "far from the maddening crowds," the island has had its share of troubles — a damaging cyclone in 2001, a disruptive fire at the crawfish canning plant in 2008 and, in 1961, a volcanic eruption that resulted in the displacement of island’s entire population for two years — since its foundation as a British trading settlement in the early 19th century.
And in modern-day Tristan da Cunha, one pressing issue faced by its residents is housing-related. It’s not that there’s not enough of it. It’s that the rain-drenched island’s existing housing stock is aging, poorly insulated and inefficient. Powered by the island's three diesel generators and frequently beset with mold, the island’s approximately 120 privately owned homes have seen better days.
Bright ideas for a sustainable future
Better days, however, could soon be ahead when it comes to the housing situation in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas thanks in part to a Royal Institute of British Architects- (RIBA) organized Tristan da Cunha Design Ideas Competition. Launched in anticipation of the island’s 200th anniversary next year, the international competition aims to usher residential properties on the island into the 21st century by rendering them more energy-efficient.
Also included in the self-sufficiency-minded competition is the retrofitting — or entire replacement — of select governmental buildings in the village (there are 28 in total) including the island’s one and only store. “Are all of basic construction and lean more towards agricultural sheds as opposed to the usual notion of a government edifice,” reads the competition brief of the existing structures, primarily made from corrugated tin and lacking insulation and proper ventilation.
Competition entrants must also submit ideas on how to improve the island’s water management and agriculture practices along with ideas on how to help the community achieve 30 to 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources within the next five years.
Summarizes the competition invitation:
The competition is seeking innovative, cost-effective approaches for the re-design and consolidation of the Island's government buildings; initiatives to significantly improve the living standards and performance of residential properties; together with improvements to the Island's agrarian systems to better support grazing and the year-round growth of fresh produce.
There’s also the issue of sensitivity. Despite its difficult topography and desolation, the island’s fiercely proud residents love their home and, based on the fact that most all Tristanian families returned following 1961’s volcanic eruption, wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Therefore, competition entrants are tasked with improving, not reinventing, the community with limited disruptions and a respect for the “setting, materiality and spirit of the existing environment” all the while meeting current U.K. building code.
When concrete aren't cutting it
While the Tristan da Cunha Design Ideas Competition is multi-faceted in its approach, the home retrofitting component is perhaps the most fascinating.
As detailed by the competition brief, all residential properties on Tristan da Cunah are privately owned by Tristanian families; most are passed on from generation to generation. It’s also worth noting that, aside from a small expatriate population, all residents on the island share seven last names: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain.
The Greens (originally a Dutch surname, Groen) are presently the largest clan on the island with 67 family members; the Swains come in second with 56. Cynthia Green is tasked with keeping track of comings and goings and population totals. Ian Lavarello has served as Chief Islander since 2010, a position previously dominated by the Glass and Green families, while Conrad Glass, descended from the settlement's founder and original leader, Scottish Corporal William Glass, is the island's current — and only — police inspector.
Somewhat of a national pastime, subsistence farming doesn’t take place on private residential property. Rather, every family raises livestock on communal pastures and farms within the walled fields of the famed Potato Patches located a couple miles outside of the Settlement proper.
The homes themselves, all 120 of them, are a mix of handsome 19th century cottages built from volcanic rock and modern concrete bungalows. The older, single-person structures originally had thatched roofs that have since been replaced with corrugated tin. (There is, however, a traditional thatched home that operates as a museum and guest house).
Newer homes, most with three bedrooms, on the island were constructed on the cheap using concrete blocks — cinder blocks, essentially — and are wildly inefficient with no insulation, no central heating and single-pane windows. Tristanians bundle up and/or rely on space heating for warmth.
As previously mentioned, these homes are often plagued with mold infestations due to the island’s wet ‘n’ stuffy temperate climate. The competition brief notes that many families on the island — a single-doctor island, by the way — suffer from respiratory ailments as a result.
Difficult but not impossible
So when will the Greens, the Swains et al. be able to move into healthier, more energy-efficient digs?
That’s a good question. While a shortlist of competition winners will be announced this September following review from both an official judging panel and the Island Council, there’s no guarantee that any of the schemes will actually be realized as, in the end, it’s an ideas competition. The RIBA’s involvement ends at the conclusion of the competition. From there, it’s up to Tristan da Cunah’s government to move forward with — and finance — any subsequent plans.
Clarifies RIBA Competitions:
Progression of the preferred proposals (in their entirety or part) will be subject to the Government of Tristan da Cunha being successful in securing future funding for the project. The Government of Tristan da Cunha will reserve the right to supplement the composition of the short-listed design teams (which may include consultants not suggested within the competitor's bid) to ensure the correct mix of skills and expertise.
The Government of Tristan da Cunha reserves the right not to proceed beyond the competition stage in the event that the requirements and aspirations set for the competition are not met, but all Honorarium payments as indicated will be awarded.
Alex Mitham currently serves as Tristan da Cunha Administrator, a British government-appointed position that entails living in the island's fanciest house, The Residency, and serving as head of the Island Council. He states in a press release:
As the community nears its 200th Anniversary, it is a perfect time to not only reflect on the past, but also look to the future and ensure the community's viability for generations to come. I believe that a competition such as this offers the community that chance to thrive.
We live in a time when you can step on a plane and be almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours. However Tristan is truly unique, and offers a fantastic opportunity for designers from around the world to have a beneficial impact on how Tristanian’s live and work for years to come.
There’s also information about visiting the island and the numerous private- and government-owned guest accommodations found in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. But before a potential visitor to Tristan da Cunha can even begin the rather complicated process of booking passage on one the handful of Cape Town-departing vessels to the island, he or she must first secure permission from the island government through a formal proposal process.
To read the account of an outsider who has been granted permission to visit Tristan da Cunha, Andy Isaacson’s for National Geographic is a pretty great one. And this public television documentary from the late 1980s is worth a watch if not only for some spectacular shade-throwing from a pearl-wearing Carlene Rogers at the 31-minute mark.
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