At first, it might seem unusual that what’s being touted as Greenland’s first “world-class tourist attraction” is a beautiful and thoughtfully designed structure that affords visitors with a stunning view of a seriously grievous event: the slow — but rapidly accelerating — melting of a monstrous ice sheet some 250,000 years old.
But then again, this is Ilulissat, a small town 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle where sled dogs outnumber humans and reindeer tartare rules the dinner table.
This is a town where the pillar of the tourism-based economy is a UNESCO-protected site that’s home to the fastest and most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, Jakobshavn Glacier — or Sermeq Kujalleq in Greenlandic. (A glacier’s productivity is based on how many major icebergs it calves, or sheds, and Jakobsjavn is by far Greenland's top iceberg generator. )
This is a town with a name that literally translates to “Icebergs” in native Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) but where the iconic drifting ice mountains of Disko Bay are melting at an alarming rate.
You see, nowhere else on the planet are the telltale signs of a warming planet more obvious, more palpable than in Ilulissat — or, as some might call it, ground zero for climate change.
Tourism in and around Greenland's third largest population center has increased steadily since the iceberg-filled tidal fjord just out outside of town, Ilulissat Icefjord, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Due to open in 2020, the newly designed Icefjord Centre will be the first proper visitors center to be erected at Ilulissat — the first of five such tourism hubs to be built across the country. The inaugural center in Ilulissat is a joint effort between Greenland’s home-rule government, the municipality of Qaasuitsup and Realdania, the Danish philanthropic organization that's largely bankrolling the project.
Selected as part of an international design competition that attracted a who’s who of celebrated Nordic architecture firms, the boomerang-shaped wooden pavilion that’s all about the rooftop views is the creation of Copenhagen-based Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter which, somewhat curiously, was the only Danish entrant in the competition. (Geologically part of North America and the world’s largest island that isn’t a continent, Greenland is an autonomous country that along with the Faroe Islands and Denmark proper comprise the Kingdom of Denmark.)
An elegant and unobtrusive edifice that spans out across the Hoth-like landscape of Iluissat, Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter describes the Icefjord Centre as a “gathering point where local residents, businesses, climate researchers, climate debaters and global tourists meet in a dynamic learning and exhibition space.”
Icefjord Centre's curvaceous roofline pulls double-duty as a wooden boardwalk and viewing platform. Greenland hopes to eventually open four more architecturally significant visitors centers to boost tourism. (Rendering: MIR)
Topped with an undulating wooden boardwalk that functions as both a trailhead and a viewing platforming that offers knockout views of the Sermermiut Valley and beyond, the aim of the structure is to "tell the story of ice, of human history and evolution in both a local and global sense.”
Elaborates Realdania in a press release announcing Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter’s winning design:
The winning project is a simple, twisting structure resembling a wing stretching across the landscape. ‘The flight of a snowy owl’ was the poetic vision of the architects. The building will be a natural extension of existing hiking trails in the area, with the possibility of continuing the hike onto the roof of the building to enjoy the unique view of the ice fjord and the surrounding landscape. The open facade generates dialogue between the exhibition inside and the building’s natural surroundings; a dialogue between man and nature. The basic idea is that the building should have as little impact on the fragile landscape as possible.
Realdania goes on to note that Icefjord Centre should expect to see roughly 25,000 annual visitors once completed and operational in the fall of 2020. The organization anticipates that the addition of the landmark new building-cum-hiking trial extension will give the local economy a boost through the creation of additional jobs and tourism-related activities.
Birthplace of famed polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, the Arctic town of Ilulissat, Greenland's third largest, is a global destination for iceberg-spotters and climate scientists alike. (Photo: Guido Appenzeller/flickr)
With a population of roughly 4,500, Ilulissat already enjoys the status of Greenland's top tourist town. Located south of the Arctic Circle, the mountain-flanked capital city of Nuuk (the northernmost capital city in the world, beating out Reykjavik by just a hair) is undeniably more cosmopolitan with a population nearly four times the size than that of Ilulissat.
But you know what Nuuk doesn't have?
Ginormous icebergs birthed by the very same glacier believed to have shed the mile-long behemoth that sunk the RMS Titanic in 1912.
Protected areas that preserve local heritage and showcase rugged natural beauty in equal measure — Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park being a prime example — largely inspired the Icefjord Centre project, which, as noted by Dorte Mandrup, is just as much for local residents and visiting glaciologists than it is for tourists seeking both awe-inspiring photo-ops of calving glaciers and towering icebergs.
'The movement of the structure and form creates a constantly changing view that enhances the experience of the landscape by framing the fantastic viewpoints,' explains Dorte Mandrip Arkitekter. (Rendering: MIR)
Explains Realdania CEO Jesper Nygård:
The Icefjord Centre will provide a front-row seat for the melting ice sheet and it will communicate the tangible consequences of climate change to us all. We are confident that the Icefjord Centre will be a significant contribution to the development of tourism in Ilulissat and Greenland as a whole, and not least become a global gathering point for research and climate debate. We now have a world-class architectural solution that underpins such a vision and which will take its place respectfully on the edge of the unique World Heritage Site.
Icefjord Centre sounds like a winner on all fronts: tourist-friendly panoramas, scientific research and environmentally sensitive architecture. But one does have to wonder about the timing given that 2020 isn’t exactly just around the corner. Will massive chunks of ice even dominate the landscape four nears from now in a country where tourism is largely driven by urgency — see it before it's gone.
One would hope.
While the consequences of climate change are devastating and wide-reaching, Greenland, even in the midst of a sea level-rise-causing meltdown, is proud to be home to the so-called "ground zero" of global warming. No shame or denial here. In fact, Greenlanders have gone quite the opposite route: They're promoting it.
Due to open in 2020, the new center 'will serve as a global portal to understanding the ice fjord and, not least, its culture and history as well as the dramatic melting of the Greenland ice sheet.' (Rendering: MIR)
This may all sound odd — if not completely counterintuitive. However, it also makes sense as Greenlanders are eager to promote research and instigate positive change while bolstering tourism and embracing new opportunities yielded by warmer temperatures. It's already happening so why not position yourself as the place to find ways to understand and, ideally, slow it?
We Greenlanders are thankful for the growing interest in an issue that we live with and adapt to constantly, but even more so, we are proud to be at the center of important research with global implications.
Visiting the Ilulissat Icefjord is not only about seeing a large calving glacier or melting icebergs before it’s too late. It is a unique opportunity to be active in the climate change conversation here at ‘ground zero’ and to let your experiences in Greenland inspire your life back home.
While the "come to Greenland to soak in the culture and view melting ice and then return back home where you'll think long and hard about your own impact on the planet" pitch may be enticing to some conscientious travelers, it's not without faults as one could argue that making the trek to Greenland via plane or boat or a combination of the two contributes to climate change.
Whatever the case, If the vast frozen ice fields of western Greenland aren't in your immediate travel plans, there's always air-conditioned design museums in hot-as-blazes Washington, D.C. in which to gaze upon ice formations while contemplating climate change.