Graduate traces Antarctic science station's architectural evolution

Georgina Davis

In the first comprehensive architectural history of McMurdo Station, a research facility located in Antarctica, Georgina Davis, who earned a Ph.D. in Architecture from Texas A&M in 2015, traces the station’s bygone days from its 1957 founding as a temporary military field camp, to a modern, if spartan, hub for scientists studying the icy continent.

Davis’ history of the station, published in January 2017 by the Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, is adapted from her Ph.D. dissertation on occupant comfort and energy-efficient buildings in extremely cold climates.

“Understanding the station’s architectural history should be part of its future design and planning proposals,” she said.

McMurdo Station is the flagship facility of the U.S. Antarctic Program, a National Science Foundation-funded and managed initiative that supports researchers seeking to understand the region and its ecosystems, their effects on global climate, as well as the Earth’s upper atmosphere and space.

“It’s more like a small town than any other Antarctic station,” said Davis.

Located 839 miles from the continent’s South Pole Station, McMurdo supports a summer population of approximately 1,200 and a winter population of approximately 200 civilian support personnel and a few scientists.

In July through September, the coldest part of the Antarctic winter, high temperatures average 7 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, lows 30 below. During the short summers, high temperatures average 31 degrees, lows 22.

Through the years, said Davis, the station’s architectural focus shifted from ensuring military personnel’s survival to its National Science Foundation managers’ desire to operate a sustainable facility that creates a sense of place in an alien environment. Control of the station, from the U.S. Navy to the NSF, took place in a series of events spanning 1961-79.

After the station’s founding by the Navy, its inhabitants lived in prefabricated Quonset huts, designed to provide shelter for World War II soldiers. They could be built by 10 unskilled men in a day.

After the Quonset huts came T-5 buildings — plain, boxy structures that could be easily assembled by a handful of men with just three hammers, three screwdrivers, a wrench, a measuring tape and a level. Then came Robertson buildings — better insulated, steel-framed structures with highly customizable interiors. The station’s newest building is a 40,000 square-foot science support center with concrete slabs resting on a steel frame.

Davis scoured federal documents, technical reports and additional sources to learn about the station’s past. Her article includes photos and drawings of the station’s buildings throughout its history.

Since her first research trip to Antarctica in 2009 for her Ph.D. project, Davis has returned to the continent several times, either for her research or as an assistant in Weddell seal studies headed by Randall Davis, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“You can go weeks or months without fresh food, like lettuce, milk and apples, but because of the Internet, news, TV, and even social media are generally available,” she said.

When researching the seals away from the station, however, one becomes more aware of Antarctica’s remoteness, she said.

“When you stay in a hut and turn off the generators, you can hear the seals vocalizing and it's easy to imagine there's no one else for thousands of miles,” she said. “It’s important to remember that researchers are only able to operate so well because of the massive amount of logistical support provided by the NSF.”

Richard Nira
rnira@arch.tamu.edu

 

posted March 22, 2017