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View From Nuuk, Greenland

Striving to reconcile tradition with progress, Greenland’s capital is experiencing a dire housing shortage which looks set to intensify

A colony of Denmark from 1721 to 1953, Greenland now has self-rule and self-governing status (since a referendum in 2009), and administers its own territory and resources. But on the world’s largest island, land ownership is complex and unorthodox. All land is owned by Greenlandic municipalities and leased for private or commercial purposes when required. However, only the foundations and any above-ground construction are owned by the lessee; the land below it is not. This results in an urban landscape devoid of fences and walls. Housing and public buildings populate the landscape as if dropped from the sky.

There is a minimum distance of 10 metres between buildings for fire safety, but otherwise towns and hamlets have grown organically. Access to the coast and the impact of local topography are the key design determinants. Stepping out of your front door means, literally, stepping into public space.

Most Greenlandic housing takes the form of archetypal, gable-roofed timber dwellings. Almost exclusively clad in timber due to the combined effects of tradition, malleability and a long established supply line from Denmark, most buildings have weathered well. Colourful facades are still common, but originally had a more pragmatic purpose, communicating a settlement’s functions over long distances to passing fishermen. Supply stores, churches and schools were painted red, hospitals yellow and municipal buildings blue.

View from Nuuk

Nuuk’s picturesque facades give little sense of Greenland’s wider social and economic challenges

This chromatic code took another twist during the Second World War, when another layer of information was added. A number and letter combination known only to the Allies were painted on rooftops in order to identify a particular settlement from the air while confusing enemy aircraft.

Nuuk, the administrative capital, has some exceptions to the tradition of gabled houses. In the late ’60s, Block P was erected as part of the Danish government’s strategy of decanting Greenlanders from fishing villages into ‘modern’ housing schemes. A 200m-long concrete block with 320 apartments, at one time Block P housed one per cent of Greenland’s population.

It was the envy of many hoping for better accommodation, but it proved a major disaster. Doors were often not wide enough to enter while wearing full winter attire, closet space was minimal, and all hunting and fishing gear ended up hanging from windows or balconies. Blood and fish guts regularly clogged the drainage system, since the only place to carve up fish was the bathtub. Block P is now scheduled for demolition. Architecturally and culturally misconceived, it is not the only example of inappropriate design imposed from a distance.

With a population of just over 56,000 inhabiting the world’s largest island, Greenland is the least dense nation on the planet, yet lack of housing is endemic. The current demand for housing in Nuuk, with a population of just over 15,000, has generated waiting lists of up to 17 years. If plots, flats and allotments are contested by several claims, ownership is decided by lottery; unbelievably, a national policy. This lack of housing is largely due to lack of investment.

View from Nuuk

It is prohibitively expensive to build in Greenland, all construction materials have to be imported and no attempt has been made to challenge or explore alternative ways of building here. Granite is abundant but too brittle for construction purposes, so it is still cheaper to build in Denmark (or even China) and transport the end result to Greenland than to build locally.

As the search for mineral resources (iron, uranium and rare-earth metals) intensifies, Greenland is facing an industrial and social revolution. Inward migration is set to explode, increasing pressure on a society that can barely accommodate its own population. Despite its growing importance in the ‘Wild North’ group of circumpolar nations, Greenland still finds itself uncomfortably skewered between centuries of tradition and Western economic ambitions.

Fact File

David A. Garcia is an architect and publisher of of MAP, the Manual of Architectural Possibilities. He is a course director at The Bartlett school of Architecture, Univerity College London.

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