Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects. The Svalbard Science Center – at 78° N 16° E

Towards the end of the street through one of the world’s most northernmost town of Longyearbyen is situated an intriguing figure of a building. Its sharp-edged body, skewed and folded in acute geometry. Its skin wrapped with a layer of insulated copper-clad as a brown shell reminiscing the color of the ground it stands on. The Svalbard Science Center or the University Center in Svalbard building proves itself to be compelling and an impressive eye-catcher within the breathtaking vistas of Svalbard’s arctic landscapes.


It is actually the extension of the existing building of the University of Svalbard and was designed by Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects (JVA). They won the competition prior to its completion in the year 2005. It was the late summer, a decade after its completion, that I had an opportunity to land my feet on the arctic territory of Longyearbyen and saw the building for the first time. Despite the fact that I had some information prior to my excursion on the building, seeing the building before my eyes felt somewhat intriguing.  The building itself, among its context, was pretty inviting. I was told that the concept of the building was derived from the star, as looking from the top you could see the building’s five arms reaching out from its central core. However, the plan of the building seems to me personally more like a deformed and elongated star or an abstract figure of a man in distorted gesture.


Its geometry and form under the copper-clad skin and corrugated roofs were designed in reference of its landscape and to be adapting to its environmental context of wind and snow. Through 3D simulations was the building shaped to avoid undesirable accumulation of snow and blizzards. Similar to other buildings situated on the same Artic grounds, the building is elevated on poles over the permafrost.


While the main materials of the building are steel and wood, wood seems to be the predominant material. There are many reasons why wood was chosen for the building, one of the reason is to create an interior ambiance that completely contrasts to the outside cold and dark period during the harsh winter. Upon arriving within the interior space of the building, I could still see how the interior spoke to the geometry expressed in the exterior. A series of vast window panes allow natural light to illuminate the inside and greeted at the reception and a rooted a stair leading me up to spaces above.


We, the visiting students, were also told of many stories about the building. About how it was finished within the time frame and budget, the impacts of the wooden interior to the space dwellers and how the middle courtyard within the building would collect garbage taken by the wind from elsewhere. Overall the building seemed to serve well to those living within it.

In general, the building seems to be a quite successful project. As much as it is one of Lonyearbyen center town’s highlights, its eye-catching appearance owns somehow to the reinforcement of its surrounding context. Despite the magnificent landscapes of natural creations, the surrounding town of dull, repetitive and humble houses and buildings  contributes to the distinct and standout appearance of the UNIS building. Sometimes it seems like the building compliments too much to the arctic landscapes that it completely abandons the idea of blending in the town that surrounds it. However in the context of mystical Svalbard, the building is well appreciated by its users and visitors. Without any doubt, the building is gradually becoming, if it hasn’t already, one of Longyearbyen’s attractions and important sights.