What did your research in Iceland focus on?
The aim of my research was to study the intersection of tourism, resource consumption, national identity, and urbanization of coastal settlements within Iceland. Due to the physical size of the island, I knew that I would have a good chance of gaining a fairly holistic understanding of the cultural, economic, and environmental nuances of the nation within the short time frame of 19 days. I came away with a great respect for Iceland and island nations facing the challenges of sustainable growth and environmental justice. The trip triggered many unanswered questions about how architecture can help with these challenges, which has become something I hope to pursue in the future. I completed my travels by giving a Goldsmith Talk on my research, through photography, writing and drawing, and a formal presentation to the Boone Powell Family, the award donors.
What prompted your visit to Iceland? Did you travel there to document this project, or was it an incidental discovery?
Exploring Iceland has been a dream since childhood, and a series of recent events opened up an intriguing platform for the discussion of architecture and urbanization. The nation's financial collapse in 2008 and volcanic explosion in 2010 instigated the largest growth in tourism the island has seen yet, with over 1 million visitors in the summer of 2014, compared to the population of approximately 300,000 permanent citizens. So, this poses important questions on capacity, consumption and carefully planned growth for such a small island sitting at the tip of the Arctic Circle. When I was nominated for the Boone Powell Family Prize in Urban Design, I began questioning how Icelandic architecture and design would evolve along with or against the island's environmental and economic transformations. I was very honored to be selected to pursue this investigation last August.
What was your overall impression of ecotourism in Iceland and what were you expecting to find? Did it exceed your expectations? Fall short?
The tourism in Iceland was truly astounding. It really highlighted both the perceptual and physical importance of scale, space, and time. There were many times I felt the absence of people within emptied landscapes, but I also witnessed the mass presence of non-Icelanders introducing an exotic demand for vacation experiences. How Icelanders determine their strategy for managing this tourism boom will play a large role in their economy, energy, and transportation use. The strategy also directs how the nation is advertised within global media, in terms of what is chosen to be portrayed and what is genuinely Icelandic. I think eco-tourism will become the most controversial aspect moving into the future, since everyone is quickly realizing that more infrastructure, hotels, cars orâ€”hopefullyâ€”a nation-wide public transportation system, must be implemented at the expense of the profound glacial and volcanic wilderness that makes Iceland so treasured. It was inspiring to see a collective effort from many different types of professionals, including designers, biologists, planners, and politicians, working together to create multi-functioning, multi-scalar solutions, like the self-sufficient community of SÃ³lheimar. The self-proclaimed "eco-village" grows and raises all food consumed, a contrast to the typical importation of goods, employs people with disabilities and chronically homeless individuals, and locally generates 100% renewable energy.
What site in Iceland did you find most interesting?
I was amazed by the three hour drive from the east Iceland coast along the edge of the Highlands to MÃ½vatn. The empty landscapes changed by the minute and I ended up in a bizarre and fantastical setting of immense geothermal activity, Martian-like rust-colored dunes, power plants, hotels and one of the most biodiverse wetland/lake system in the world. MÃ½vatn appears to be more like an outpost than a town, but it certainly was an ecosystem fueled by the pace of tourism. It was quite other-worldly swimming in milky-blue geothermal baths next to people swinging around selfie-sticks with 2,300 year old volcanoes and craters in the background cast immense shadows on the surrounding valley.