Through The Lens of Preservation: Hawaiʻi and the Arctic

Through The Lens of Preservation: Hawaiʻi and the Arctic

Originally Appearing in "Hawai'i Intrigue" (Abstract 4)
Text & Images by Ming-Yi Wong


In June, I boarded the first of many flights that would take me from Honolulu to the international territory of Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, midway between Norway and the North Pole. I spent two weeks as an artist-in-residence aboard an ice-class expedition vessel with 25 other international artist and writers, all of us participants of The Arctic Circle residency program.

We sailed around the Svalbard archipelago, experiencing 24 hours of daylight and temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit (actually 10 degrees Fahrenheit if you factor the wind chill in June).

As a designer at a historic preservation architecture firm in Honolulu, I mostly deal with existing structures, some abandoned, some underutilized, some just in need of basic repairs. The essence remains the same—architecture as evidence of a way of living, of people developing relationships to their surroundings.

I went to the Arctic to experience another type of environment, a place almost without architecture. I have long been fascinated with the Arctic—a place of extremes, incredibly fragile yet forcefully resistant to human presence.

In my first experience of the stark arctic environment, I struggled to understand the subtleties in this profound terrain, the culmination of millions of years of glacial movements. I struggled to imagine human presence in a place so utterly remote.

However, remoteness should not be mistaken for being untouched. Systematic geological mapping was carried out in the late 19th century, and commercial mining occurred as early as 1899. These mining settlements were the predecessors of modern towns in Svalbard such as Longyearbyen, Ny Alesund, and Pyramiden.

We sailed to the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden near the end of our two-week expedition.

Located at the innermost part of the Isfjord, Pyramiden sits at the foot of a pyramid-shaped mountain. The town was founded by Sweden in 1910 and mining began there in 1911 with limited success. However, in 1919 and 1920, two guards managed to successfully dig a 40 meter deep coal tunnel. The property was sold to Russia in 1926 and in 1931, the Russian state-owned company Trust Arktikkugol, which supervised all of Russia’s other mining interests in Svalbard, took control of the mines in Pyramiden.

Soviet-era planning ideals are apparent in the town’s design. The backbone of the town is the central avenue, lined on both sides with buildings, which occupies the main portion of the town.

At the head of the avenue is the most important institution, appropriately named the Culture House. Just behind these buildings lies the true heart of the town, where all the mining facilities, utilities and equipment are located along the mountains, near the mines themselves.

By 1989, there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living in Pyramiden. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the town was abruptly abandoned in 1998.

As I wandered through this town–always within the presence of the armed guides on alert for polar bears – I found myself back in familiar territory, decoding the universal language of architecture.

I took note of the silence in this town—there were no doors or windows opening and closing, no faint hum of machinery, no whisper of conversations slipping through the cracks.

The preservation of time in Pyramiden is a stark contrast to the preservation of time in Hawaiʻi. Time here in Hawai‘i is constantly being measured and tempered, from the rolling waves of our beaches to the changing colors of our tropical forests. The relatively rapid decay of Hawaiʻi’s historic buildings is marked by termite-ridden wood, rusty metals, peeling layers of paint and cobwebs lurking in corners.

In such a frigid climate, Pyramiden undergoes a slower rate of decay, as if it exists in a vacuum, and its physical past is apparent in an almost unchanged form to visitors even years after its abandonment.

I draw parallels between what I experienced in Pyramiden and historic preservation in Hawaiʻi. Abandonment of our agricultural lands or historic facilities erases the physical records of the history of the place. The value of Pyramiden may not be what it was but that it is a record of what it was. And quite possibly the value of preservation in Hawaiʻi is not the physical representation of a past way of living but that these traces of the past are recorded, dispersed and shared with residents and visitors alike.

For more information: