Fire and ice (February 13, 2009)

Vancouver’s molo studio was recently in Alaska participating in an event called FREEZE. In temperatures reaching -30C, molo built an ephemeral outdoor room from snow and ice; a place for contemplation, gathering and a heightened sensory experience of the winter sky. Ethan Rose, a Portland-based musician, joined molo in Anchorage and composed a complementary piece of music. Using snow and ice the beautiful music filled the space for a day.”Tall walls of sintered snow form two concentric circles, creating a path that winds into an intimate central space, transitioning from views of the city to an abstraction of the northern landscape. The shape of the inner space is derived by imagining a circle of people gathered around a fire. The shape of the room also serves to frame the light of the northern sky.” text from the original proposalAs members of molo began construction in the pitch dark on an extremely cold New Year’s morning, they realized several challenges lay ahead and that they needed to begin work by improvising upon their original plans. One of the main challenges was working with snow ploughed from parking lots. it was mixed with gravel and sand and had taken on unpredictable consistencies as a result of the fluctuating temperatures. They tested the snow by piling it and loosely shovelling it into the formwork. Once there, the snow became concrete-like as it sintered (crystallized into a solid mass) in the cold. Playing with the formwork by bracing it with their bodies, they responded to the weight and pressure of the snow by physically backing off or leaning into the formwork, which in turn created different shapes in the walls. The exercise resulted in walls containing a geology of formations and textures that can be read in various scales including that of the imagination. Entering the completed structure’s narrow opening for the first time; the visitor could almost feel the weight of the massive 8 (2.44m) tall walls of snow, with the procession ahead a mystery. The pile of firewood at the entrance was a familiar yet curious clue to what might lie inside. Beyond the firewood was a long, winding path travelling the circumference of the circle just wide enough for people travelling in opposite directions to pass one another. Moving through the passageway the visitor might have been surprised by a child leaping overhead from one wall to the next. Molo did not tell people to climb on top of the walls (imagine the legal liabilities); they just followed their curiosity and instinct. Depending on the wind’s direction, the visitor begin to smell the smoke of the wood fire and hear the sounds of Ethan’s delicately constructed music. At the end of the passage, the visitor turned and moved up a set of ice block steps. Once at the top, the space opened up and revealed a circular room with seating steps formed into the walls. In the centre, at the lowest point of the circle, was a roaring fire and above it is the northern sky. Most rewarding for molo was seeing the big smiles on the faces of all the people leaving – the same big uninhibited smiles that kids have. Strangers coming and going shared an experience in a physically engaging way, which is rare in urban public space. Just the right proportion of people felt inclined to carry a piece of firewood from the entrance through the long passage and into the central space where the large fire awaited for them to tend. Once the fire was started, the public took ownership of it and kept it going almost 24 hours a day. After discovering that there was this sort of secret outdoor room in their city, with a big roaring fire, many people returned for a second visit, some with wine or food or friends. Impromptu storytelling sessions and food were shared around the fire and on one such occasion each person sitting in the circle took turns telling the story of what brought them to Alaska.