Stranger Station

May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Moshi Kotierk stands at a wide, waist-to-ceiling window that gives him a panoramic view of Igloolik, right to the edge of the bay. It’s mid-June, break-up time – neither summer nor winter – and the scene below is full of restlessness: kids hopping ice floes, Skidoos scraping through town along the last paths of snow. “My parents took me south before high school,” Kotierk says, gazing outwards. “They wanted me to have a good education. But even when I was down there, I knew I’d come back and work here.”  

Here, for Kotierk – the building he stands in – is the Igloolik Research Station, smirkingly referred to by locals as “the mushroom building,” or sometimes the UFO. It’s even been described as a “giant doorknob sticking out of the ground.” Technically, it’s a panopticon; a 10-foot-high pole topped with a disc of laboratories, its 36 radial windows facing out in all directions. And as Kotierk, peering out over his hometown, well knows, the building provides a distinctive viewpoint on Igloolik and the Arctic.

Even before Indian Affairs and Northern Development opened the station in 1975, it had won architectural awards for two things: It is largely made of plastic, and its pole base props it up above the permafrost, minimizing melting. It had other virtuous intentions: According to the project’s scientific advisor, Graham Rowley, it was designed “to ensure that local people take part in research, whenever practical, but also that the results of research at the laboratory are made known to them.” It was located in Igloolik because of the area’s rich biology, history and culture. Maybe the architects thought its curvilinear white exterior would remind locals of the area’s namesake igloos: Said Rowley, “It [was] hoped that most of the permanent staff [would] be local Eskimos.”

Thirty-eight years later, though, that goal has only partly come true. Most of the workers here are Government of Nunavut biologists; Kotierk, a social scientist, is among the few Inuit. And ironically, he’s working on the same old problem Rowley mentioned: Incorporating local “traditional knowledge” into Arctic research. “I’m not sure,” he says, “whether people feel like part of [scientific and governmental] processes – empowered by them or victims of them. I’m still not sure.”

In a lot of ways, the mushroom building is emblematic of that problem. A bizarre, alien structure, plunked into an Inuit town by well-meaning but possibly naïve southerners, it’s almost literally a spaceship from an alien world. But over the years, Iglulingmiut have gotten used to it. It might even be beloved – it’s one of the only buildings in town that is not regularly coated in fresh graffiti. The mushroom sat vivid in Kotierk’s mind through twenty years of travel. Welcome or not, it’s become a symbol of Igloolik, and more and more, that counts for something.

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