Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole on the archipelago Svalbard, Longyearbyen isn’t exactly the easiest destination to get to. It’s often referred to as world’s northernmost ‘city’ at 78 degrees north of the equator. While its population barely tops 2,000, the island-settlement is home to institutions that protect its unique history and geography – an especially crucial mission as climate change threatens the region. A recent addition is the Arc, an impressive visitor centre for Arctic preservation storage designed by Snøhetta.

Despite the trek, visitors do come by sea and sky, usually via Oslo. In 2017, the number of researchers and tourists disembarking from Svalbard’s points-of-entry reached approximately 65,000, according to reportage by The Washington Post. And, now awaiting those visitors, is The Arc. Commissioned by Arctic Memory AS, the institution will exhibit content from the Svalbard Global Seed vault – the largest secure seed storage in the world – and the Arctic World Archive, a vault established to preserve the world’s digital heritage.

Two separate volumes – an entrance and exhibition building – make up The Arc, connected by a glass access bridge. The entrance building is pragmatically designed: constructed from cross-laminated timber and stiffening wall discs, the rectangular structure contains a lobby, ticketing area, wardrobe and café in addition to production facilities and technical rooms. But the exhibition building is a different architectural story altogether. Suspended off the ground to prevent accumulation of snow and heating of permafrost, the white edifice juts out from a blanket of snow. A Snøhetta spokesperson describes the ‘robust monolith’ as resemblant to ‘an organic form drilled out of the ground, [seemingly exposing] the stratification of the Earth’s surface.’  

The interiors of the ‘vault’ are kept at four degrees Celsius with subdued lighting to ‘amplify the experience of being inside one of the real vaults’. Inside the visually powerful peripheral space, media ranging from the work of Edvard Munch to 1,500-year-old Vatican manuscripts to film clips of Brazilian footballer Pelé to at-risk agricultural resources are displayed on wall projections. This content can be managed through touch screens, VR experiences and other physical and digital elements, developed in collaboration with international design agency Tellart. At the heart of the building is the Ceremony room, a multi-functional, conditioned auditorium for digital projects, deposit ceremonies for the vaults, lectures, talks and individual reflection. A deciduous tree is installed in its centre, a symbol of the vegetation that, between 56 and 200 million years ago, would have been found growing on Svalbard.

The allegory – rather, call to action – is lost on no one. As the Snøhetta team points out, ‘At the current rate of carbon emissions, temperatures could rise high enough for a forest to grow again on Svalbard within only 150-200 years.’