words Justin McGuirk
Marble dust crunches underfoot, frost is forming on your eyelashes and you can’t feel your thumbs. Ahead a structure looms like the wreck of an ice-breaker – magnificent and useless. But not abandoned. A crowd is circling and there are even people clambering up the sides. After all, this is not sculpture, this is architecture. This is Zaha Hadid’s latest… thing.
The Snow Show has been a long time in the making. It all began four years ago, when New York gallery owner Lance Fung visited the industrial town of Kemi, an hour south of Rovaniemi, and discovered a giant snow castle. It occurred to Fung to build a snow museum, but then he decided to match architects with artists for a series of one-off projects. The dry run was last year, when Stephen Holl and Asymptote, together with artists Jene Highstein and Osmo Rauhula, built two impressive structures that proved that, however fanciful, the idea had legs. For this year’s event, Fung, who is as fearsomely ambitious as he is disarmingly camp, lined up 15 teams that included the architects Future Systems, Tadao Ando, Diller + Scofidio and Hadid, and the artists Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Kiki Smith and Yoko Ono.
The fact that Fung, who is not quite in the premiership of New York’s art dealers, could mobilise this elite contingent suggests that he managed to sink a hook deep in their imaginations. This is certainly more than a successful cultivation of the creative jet set.
For Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima it was curiosity. “I couldn’t imagine what minus 30 was,” says Miyajima. “I thought it can’t be possible for people to be alive.” But it was also the opportunity of working with Tadao Ando, whose work he admires. Others were attracted by the freedom: the absence of the client and the ordinary constraints of the commercial workplace. “It was the ephemerality that appealed to me,” says Rachel Whiteread. “It was a chance to do an experiment.” As to what it was all about, there was talk of making an intellectual discourse between artist and architect accessible to everyone, and furthering the technology of snow and ice construction. However, away from the melee of newspaper critics and assistants that dog Fung’s every step, he says: “The whole project was born of kitsch – snow castle, Santa Claus, reindeers, I mean…”
The watchword of the Snow Show, the word that began to lace the frozen air with a hint of saccharin, was “collaboration”. Some of the architects had never heard of their artist partners, and vice versa, and some of them have still never even met. Nevertheless, coupled together based on vague notions of compatibility, they set about furiously collaborating, by email where necessary, and in one case strictly by fax. The awkwardness of these long-distance relationships was politely glossed over. Thai artist Top Changtrakul said working with LOT-ek was like a trip to the supermarket: “It’s like they told me that I was in charge of getting poultry when the only thing I wanted to eat was cucumbers.” Despite such challenges, all the participants seemed to find something fruitful in their arranged marriages.
The 17 works, which included two student collaborations, were divided between two towns. Kemi, in the south, borders the frozen Gulf of Bothnia and is watched over by a paper mill belching solemn clouds. Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, was masterplanned by Alvar Aalto and thrives on the 1 million tourists that arrive every winter to visit the home of Santa Claus. The bigger names are here. But Kemi’s expanse of whiteness lends works like Obscure Horizons, by Mexican architect Enrique Norten and New York artist Lawrence Weiner, an automatic grandeur. Its slabs of dyed ice jut out of the earth like an unfinished building, directly confronting the pristine horizon. Weiner describes them as “the basic props of architecture”. The dyeing process for this and other works presented chief builder Seppo Mäkinen with one of many new challenges. He had to devise a way of keeping the pigment evenly distributed when ordinarily it would just sink to the bottom. Mäkinen, visibly strained by the workload and overexposure to subzero temperatures, described a gradual process of freezing the slabs from the bottom up rather than all at once.
There were other grand structures in Kemi and there were works that were subversively, or at least playfully, unstructural. Greek architects Anamorphosis and Irish sculptor Eva Rothschild created what was, if you ignored their spiel about expressive paradigms, a variation on an ancient amphitheatre. Morphosis, too, worked to the limits of the allowed 100sqm footprint, as did LOT-ek, although their tunnel seemed to be more steel than ice. But for Icelandic practice Studio Granda, who unlike the Brazilians, Thais, Greeks and other hot-blooded types in the show are used to ice, here was an opportunity to rebel. Steve Christer says of his bicycle tied to a lamppost in the middle of a pond, “Hopefully the piece will express a dislike of ice and snow.”
Diller + Scofidio worked down rather than up, incising a chessboard or periodic table into the surface of the frozen estuary. Each of the 81 squares in Pure Mix contains a different designer water: Volvic, Vittel, Gucci, holy water, water from the River Jordan… On paper the piece, created with American artist John Roloff, is loaded – with geopolitics, the industrialisation of nature, a satirical take on the water industry – but for all its cleverness the best thing about it is the way it looks like a graveyard during the day and then turns into a 1970s disco floor at night. Similarly, Williams + Tsien, working with artist Carsten Höller, built what Billie Tsien calls an “unstructure”. Children and adults alike were whizzing down its chutes and slides, and for once the playful was actually fun. Höller’s take on it is strangely affecting: “I don’t understand why all the buildings in the world don’t have slides – it’s such an elegant way of transportation in a building.”
At the other site, along one bank of Rovaniemi’s frozen river, some of the show’s stars proved too big for their dressing rooms. Yoko Ono and Arata Isozaki’s ice labyrinth was built on its own site, a twenty-minute drive away on the actual Arctic Circle. Similarly, Hadid’s piece had to be moved because it was so much bigger than its allocated footprint. According to Mäkinen, Hadid’s was also the most difficult to build and required substantial redesigning because her swooping cantilevers were deemed unsafe. The rather clunky rendition of the fluid model proved that designing in a London studio was one thing and building out of ice blocks another. Mäkinen’s assertion that the past few months had advanced ice technology by 100 years was countered by project architect Rocio Paz’s reminder that a few months ago “we were still in the ice age”. Still, the curlicued structure provided the “surreal landscape” that was Hadid’s aim, especially once the whole thing had been doused in vodka and set on fire in Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Dionysian performance piece.
Tadao Ando kept things simpler. His arched tunnel cut an elegant half-ellipse in the snow and to walk through it gave the clearest idea of the magical light and acoustics that would attend a life lived within ice walls. Future Systems and Anish Kapoor probably thought they were keeping it simple when they designed a straightforward-looking free form but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was the shape difficult to mould in ice but it also proved impossible to achieve the saturated red that Kapoor wanted. In the end it looked hopelessly out of place, like a skinned whale at a child’s birthday party. Kapoor came, he saw, he ran away. But the final indignity came a few hours after his departure, when the whole thing collapsed. For a brief time the air was abuzz with conspiracy: someone had been jumping on it, Kapoor had demanded it be destroyed… in fact, the lights inside the hollow structure had been melting it from within.
There were other technical failures in the Snow Show, and that is only to be expected from an experiment on this scale. Kapoor and Future Systems paid the heaviest price for simply handing over their design, as so many others had, to a team of student volunteers – and really it was these students, given the Snow Show’s conspicuous no-shows, who deserve the accolades.
The collapse of Future Systems’ piece was merely a precursor of things to come – by late March the whole show will have returned to water. If Fung had had his way he’d have built the entire thing on a lake to round off that circle, but stacking and shaping 2000 tonnes of ice proved ambitious enough even on solid ground.
In some ways the Snow Show is a high-brow Disneyland on ice but it does encourage a fresh experience of space, surfaces, light – architecture. And, for all the flannel about collaboration, it was fascinating trying to unpick the threads of influence in a work and read one ego’s submission to another. As Fung refines plans for another show in Turin in 2006, he will be drawing lessons from negotiating the needs of art and architecture’s finest. As he puts it: “After this my next job should be an ambassadorship.”