How the 1950s experiment brought the bubble igloo to Kinggate, Nunavut

How the 1950s experiment brought the bubble igloo to Kinggate, Nunavut


In the black and white photos of the National Archives of Canada, it looks like an igloo on the rocky shore of Kinggate.

But something is wrong: there is no snow on the ground. The boats in the water and the bushy tundra grass prove that this is not a winter scene-it is midsummer.

That’s because it is not ice blocks that form the walls of these igloos, but a kind of polystyrene called Durofoam, the product of a wild experiment conducted in a northern community in the late 1950s.

Although today, in the words of a researcher, the concept of a bubble house may be regarded as “ridiculously insufficient, or even ruthless,” former residents remember this experiment as an example of the cooperative spirit of northern communities in the 1950s.

During this period, Canada increased its sovereignty over the North by encouraging the Inuit people to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life and settle in permanent communities.

The key to this project is the Northern Service Officer or the National Bureau of Statistics. Often among the first white residents of these new communities, they are responsible for representing the federal government, providing social projects, and developing the local economy to justify the existence of these settlements.

The first of these officers was James Houston, who arrived in Nunavut on a dog sled with his young family in the early 1950s (then known as Cape Dorset in the Northwest Territories).

“He has a responsibility to represent all government departments in the region,” said his son John Houston, who grew up in Kinggate and now makes movies about the North.

Foam brick igloo on the rocky coast of Kinngait. The open water indicates that this is a summer scene. (The Library and Archives of Canada/The National Film Commission of Canada/a114847)

“So one of the things is economic development, the other is housing, tourism, you know, maybe even… research and development.”

When James Houston went south with Peter Pitseolak, all these things came together

In the summer exhibition, Pitseolak was asked to make an igloo out of hard foam bricks to show how it was completed.

“Along the way, my father came up with an idea -‘Wait a minute, maybe these things can be used in the Arctic in some way,'” Houston said.

Jimmy Manning, Pitseolak’s grandson and a close friend in Houston, said that in Kinggate at that time, more and more families were leaving nomadic life and settling in the community, resulting in a severe housing shortage.

Pitseolak used pre-cut foam blocks to build a polystyrene igloo. Houston said the idea came from a demonstration igloo built for the Canadian Expo. (Submitted by the Houston family)

Houston said that his father immediately saw the potential of Pitseolak’s design.

“Maybe they can help expand the housing stock,” he said of the creation of foam bricks. “Maybe they are useful for tourism, [or] Perhaps the Inuit, who are still transitioning between the nomadic lifestyle and the community lifestyle, can…use these because they are portable. They can be used on land. “

After Houston negotiated the supply of Durofoam with a company in Kitchener, Ontario, which wanted to cold test its products in the Arctic, Pitseolak cut the design and brought the parts to Kinngait.

In Kinngait’s teenage years, Manning remembered seeing local staff using tar to assemble igloos together.

“It’s so interesting to see this,” he said. “It’s coming up in a while.”

A foam brick igloo is located on Kinngait Road next to a Western-style house. As Inuit families abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and settled in Jingai, the community suffered a severe housing shortage. (Canada Library and Archives/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton Fonds/e010835896)

Housing and hosting

For a while, the igloo enjoyed a brief heyday. Some families live in it, including a local elder Andrew Kinvasyak and some friends of Manning.

Manning said: “We will visit, we will go to drink tea, warm up and winter.” He remembers how the light is filtered through the foam, even at night, illuminating the inside.

Houston said that some of them were used to receive tourists at nearby campsites as part of an early attempt at “adventure tourism.” According to Manning, the National Film Commission even used one as a collection.

“It becomes part of the landscape in a strange way,” he said.

Elder Andrew Kingwatsiak (right) in one of the polystyrene igloos. Kingwatsiak was unable to use his legs and died when the igloo caught fire. (Submitted by the Houston family)

This idea has even attracted international attention.Write conversationScott Dumonceaux, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University who studies northern Canada, described an Australian newspaper full of praise for the idea, calling them “better than igloos” (albeit in the children’s section).

Today, Du Monceau wrote, “Place people in [polystyrene] The cabin seems to be inadequate, even ruthless…especially when compared to the housing standards of non-indigenous Canadians. “

In fact, even at the time, residents noticed that the igloo had their problems.Houston remembers that they have poor insulation and need more than traditional single-oil lamps, or Quilik, Heating an igloo made of snow.

Manning remembers the opposite.

“Let me tell you, it’s very hot there,” he said. “It’s very windproof. You can’t put too much heat in it. Otherwise you will sweat.”

Manning (far left) and his family are in one of the bubble igloos. He said the igloo was “terribly hot”. (Submitted by the Houston family)

But after a tragic accident exposed dangerous flaws in their design, this idea really fell out of favor.

“We watched a 16mm black-and-white movie in the old school,” Manning recalled. “When they were changing a wheel of the projector…everyone came out to smoke and breathe fresh air, a little bit.”

“Then someone saw a very dark smoke rushing into the sky.”

The igloo owned by Elder Kingwatsiak caught fire and was soon engulfed by flames. Kingwatsiak never used his leg and died in the fire.

The accident highlighted the dangers of using foam bricks as building materials. But Kinngait is also changing-as more and more families settle down, more and more people move into Western-style houses.

Pitseolak investigated an incomplete Styrofoam igloo. Researcher Dumonceaux said that the igloo is a rare early example of the Canadian government’s cooperation in solving local solutions to housing problems. (Submitted by the Houston family)

‘A great experiment’

Today, the igloo disappeared from Kinggate. But researcher Du Monso said that when the Canadian government tried to provide “culturally sensitive” housing, they should be remembered as a rare moment in history.

“I was surprised to find…their designs have a kind of local involvement and they try to adapt to the needs of these communities,” he said.

For Houston, this story illustrates the crazy experiments that took place in northern communities in that era, as residents tried everything from prints to commercial eiderdown collection. Some things are stuck, some are not.

James Houston showed some local carvings to Inuit children in Kinngait. Houston was also praised for encouraging the development of the local engraving and printmaking industry in Kinggate, which was one of the first experiments he took to establish the local economy in the 1950s. (From left to right: Leah Qaqqasiq, Taina Nowdlak, James Houston, Levi Nutaralaaq, Joanasie Maniapik, Sheepa Ishulutaq, Rosie Veevee, Miluqtuarjuk Arnaqquq, Towkie Qappik.) (The Library and Archives of Canada/The National Film Commission of Canada/a189969)

“Everything at the time was a grand experiment,” he said.

“I remember… Kinngait when I was young was an Inuit and Gelunat,” or settlers. “They said, you know,’how on earth are we going to win? How will we jointly invent a way forward? “

“It shocked me that we can use it more today,” he said.

Manning agreed in Kinngait. He said it might not be the time to abandon prefabricated igloos.

“This idea…appeared about 10 years ago, when…we were talking, you know, my goodness, we really lack housing,” he said.

“That’s wrong material. But, you know, maybe you can try again.”

Houston is adjacent to one of Kinggate’s igloos. (Submitted by the Houston family)

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