The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a haunting symbol in a warming world. It’s a concrete bank planted deep in the permafrost of Svalbard—a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean—where it protects 986,243 seed species at a permanent zero degrees Fahrenheit. So even if we destroy ourselves and our ecosystem, the legacy of our planet’s rich plant life can one day live on.
It’s no wonder that the vault has become a destination of some fascination to the global audience, which has led the museum to begin considering an autonomous bus route that might bring interested visitors to the site. But by nature, tourists simply cannot visit the vault even if they manage to reach it, opening its doors to take a selfie. Amenities like lights, heaters, and snack bars—let alone foot traffic and body heat—would put the seeds at risk.
Which is why the global architecture and design firm Snøhetta, known for building fairly radical, environmentally conscious buildings, was tapped to build The Arc, a visitors’ center planned to open in 2022. The Arc will provide basic amenities like food and bathrooms for travelers on the frozen tundra—and it’s also something of a simulation of what it’s like to be inside the vault itself.
The design is split into two buildings. The main visitor area is a low, mirrored structure. The rectangular, modernist form reflects the nearby landscape, almost camouflaging itself into its surroundings. The timber frame building is carefully suspended above the ground to ensure it won’t heat the permafrost, or allow the accumulation of ice melt and snow. Inside, visitors can buy tickets or grab a bite at the cafe. This building also houses some production facilities for the Arctic World Archive—a sister project to the vault, in which digital renditions of famous artworks like The Scream are stored in a nuclear-safe, abandoned coal mine beneath the surface of Svalbard.
The second building is the statement, and the destination visitors will want to see. It’s a swirling obelisk, like a giant tower of soft-serve ice cream reaching into the wind. (In fact, its facade will be fiber-reinforced plastic, not ice. But shhh, let’s not ruin the effect.) Walk inside, and you will enter the inside of a concrete-encapsulated egg. The sensation is meant to evoke standing inside the vault itself, and the temperature will be set to a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit inside, meaning you’ll need to wear your coat.
Projected on the walls, you’ll see snippets from the nearby digital archive. These will be rotating exhibits, and, notably, the files aren’t literally being pulled from the archive itself. Those are safe; these are mere copies to allow the visitor a peek into the library.
Finally, in the very center of The Arc is a wood-paneled ceremony room that serves as an organic contrast to all of the concrete. Snøhetta suggests this room, which is notably heated, might host lectures or events to welcome new seeds or pieces of media into vault repositories. But at least in renderings here, it also will feature a single tree. When you consider the effect of what this building will feel like, as you walk into The Arc from the external elements, enter a frozen temple, then ultimately end your journey inside a warm, wood-encased room that resembles the seed of an avocado, well, I imagine it’s an inspiring culmination to the experience, which offers the visitor a bit of hope in this otherwise chilling world.