A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

What does it take to build a habitable structure at the bottom of the world? Quite a bit of technology, for starters. The climate of the extreme south and north poles is unlike any other. Unstable ice, immense snowfall and incredibly low temperatures can—literally, in at least one case—chew up and spit out entire buildings. Not these, though.

Right now, there are at least 30 stations on the icy continent, but for a long time, permanent structures were impossible to keep up. It was common for buildings to disappear under the snow and ice up until the late 1980s, in fact. But a new breed of antarctic architecture is popping up along its edges, and a new exhibition called Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica gives us a look at the best. What's changed since the continent was first sighted in 1820? Well, for one thing, buildings now have skis.


A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

Halley VI

Halley VI Research Station floats on an ice shelf on the edge of Antarctica, where UK scientists first observed the hole in the ozone layer. The station has been around since the 1950s, and its six unique architectural incarnations perfectly illustrate the travails of building in the extreme south.

Halley I was a humble wooden shack that almost immediately fell apart. Halley II was a collection of wood huts that were also abandoned. Halley III was a steel tube that—in theory—would delay the build up of snow on its roof. Only a few years into its tenure, it was totally buried—causing the mechanical systems to fail and leading to its abandonment (the structure was eventually spit out into the ocean). IV was a system of plywood tubes designed to prevent a similar disaster—ten years after it was built, though, it too had been engulfed by the ice shelf. 1989's Halley VI got a bit closer to a solution: It was built on stilts that were raised every year to keep the station above the surface.

Halley's current iteration, VI, goes one step further: Not only do its seven interconnected capsules sit on stilts that are raised to accommodate snowfall, those stilts are attached to gigantic metal skis. The building, which was designed by AECOM and opened in February, can be hauled to new locations as the ice shelf changes. It's a remarkable pice of engineering—though we'll have to see whether it can outlast its forefathers.


A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

Princess Elisabeth Antarctic

Belgium's Princess Elisabeth station is way greener than 99 percent of buildings in normal climates. It's the first zero-emissions building on the continent, which means it generates all of its own power, using a combination of photovoltaics and wind turbines. The stainless steel structure isn't under quite as much danger of moving ice, since it's located 125 miles from the coast, but that also means it's far more remote—which explains why self-sufficiency was so critical. Perhaps the craziest engineering feat is the fact that it needs no heating. That's thanks to its thick layers of insulation, inspired by German Passivhaus principles that encourage the use of extreme insulation to keep buildings cool in summer and warm in winter.


A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

Bharati Research Station

India's presence on Antarctica was built by bof Architekten, a German firm that works largely with prefabrication. The year-old station is build from 134 shipping containers, all wrapped in a metal shell that protects the structure from extreme wind loads.


A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Research Stations at the End of the World

Jang Bogo

Korea's 60-person station is still under construction, but it'll be one of Antarctica's largest stations when it opens next year in Terra Nova Bay (near Italy's station). Like Halley, Jang Boog sits on stilts that can be raised as the snow and ice accumulate. Meanwhile, its prefab structural guts are wrapped in a wind-buffering aerodynamic shell.


For more detail, check out Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, which is on view until October.