Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote mining towns. Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a bus tour through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements now popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the thriving mining village of Fermont, Quebec.
Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont comes complete with streets, a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket and even a tourism bureau. For all that, however, it is still run by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means there are no police, who would be funded by the state; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.
The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather. Known as the Mur-écran or “windscreen”, this structure is an astonishing 1.3 kilometres in length, shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.
Extreme environments such as those found in the far north are laboratories of architectural innovation, genuinely requiring the invention of new building types. In any other context, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But, in Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city – and has been since the 1970s.
Off-world boom towns
Entrepreneur Elon Musk has long argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, starting with a growing collection of cities on Mars. In an interview with Aeon Magazine last year, Musk infused these visions with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization”.
Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2012, in order to “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”, where really big would mean a network of towns and villages. Even cities.
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