Reading the Room
Polar bears are often used as the de facto symbol for climate change. As their dépaysement1 portrays vivid imagery of the ongoing ecological crisis, corporate greed intensifies habitat loss by deliberately capitalizing on carbon emissions. As architects sign off environmentally hostile material schemes in our dream homes, are we also endorsing the trade-off being the decimation of vulnerable animals to extinction? How does architecture participate in this unilaterally beneficial exchange between humans and non-humans? Through wildlife photographer Dmitry Kokh’s lens, this text interrogates architecture’s role in orchestrating polar bears’ existential nightmare.
In a photo series titled Polar Bears, Kokh documents a group of polar bears’ disturbing occupancy of deserted weather stations formerly operated by the Soviet Union. Prompted by vanishing glaciers and food scarcity, these marine mammals are coerced to adapt to lives on land and scavenge for new sources of food. This is particularly visceral in an image of one polar bear scouting for potential prey on the porch while the other rummages for food inside the dilapidated cabin, evident through dirt marks on its face. While it is unclear whether this mission is successful, what we can see is the reinhabitation of abandoned human architecture through non-human activity.
In the background of this same cabin occupied by the two polar bears, discarded fuel barrels present traces of human impact and concrete proof of habitat destruction. Based on the remoteness of Kolyuchin Island, where these weather stations are located, it is likely these metal containers supply necessary fuel for resource transportation. Almost indistinguishable from naturally found geologies, these haphazardly placed objects seem to provide entertainment for our curious giants, evident through another image of a polar bear cub sniffing inside one. Nevertheless, the melancholy behind this observation conveys polar bears’ obliviousness in caressing the artifacts of their own demise. Further, the material presence of these weather stations persistently reinforces opportunistic values that threaten the livelihood of native species. Almost thirty years after human occupancy, biting shards of glass, jagged pieces of roof shingles, and knifelike chipped furring strips collectively foreground architecture’s culpability against the defenseless: a polar bear remains vigilant next to a guardrail with its head dodging the rundown power cord, while another rests its claw on a window sill, its head poking through the mullions. This image points out the irony in humans’ collective obsession for code compliance and scaled uniformity. While vegetation carpets unfamiliar material assemblies in their eyes, polar bears are once again forced to acclimate to a new environment. Beyond learning to walk on terrains, these fluffy beasts are compelled to climb up porch risers into the bleakness of domesticity.
Often, we neglect the butterfly effect of a simply located architecture that engenders terrestrial repercussions.2 Dmitry Kokh’s work begins to formulate a visual accusation, one that is long overdue, of architecture- especially that of temporal settlements- being an enabler of environmental injustice. As the physical and chemical organization of hydrocarbon geologies coalesce into building materials, our comfort somehow comes at the expense of the Arctic marine ecosystem. When a group of peripatetic migrants regard broken wooden enclosures as protection from hunters and start to disrupt this archaic emblem of a no longer existent nation, humans are reminded of irreversible climatic damages. Once media coverage of these alarming images subsides, architects return to their indifference towards material compositions. In doing so, architecture is complicit to a coup de grâce of these vulnerable giants.
Andrew Y. Jiao is currently pursuing a professional M.Arch at Rice School of Architecture.
- The feeling of being out of place; disorientation in a foreign environment. ↩︎
- Kiel Moe, “Climate Change, Architecture Change” (lecture, The Architectural League, New York, NY, November 12, 2019). ↩︎