Steven Mannell, “Living Lightly on the Earth:” Building an Ark for Prince Edward Island, 1974-76 (Halifax: Dalhousie Architectural Press, 2018). 116 pgs, ISBN 9780929112695
Review by Alan MacEachern.
What do we owe hope? As environmental scholars, is our obligation only to truth, or are we also obliged to spread hope? I thought about this constantly when reading “Living Lightly on the Earth:” Building an Ark for Prince Edward Island, 1974-76, a catalogue that accompanied a major 2016-17 exhibit at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts, which is now archived at PEIark.com. The book tells of how in the middle of the 1970s oil crisis, an American environmental collective called the New Alchemy Institute convinced the Canadian government to fund its building of a bioshelter – an “Ark” – on PEI’s rural east coast. The Ark was both a functioning laboratory for integrated agricultural, aquacultural, and renewable energy systems and a functioning family home that would demonstrate the possibility of self-sufficiency and sustainability. When building it, newly-minted architecture school graduates David Bergmark and Ole Hammerlund incorporated some of the most innovative elements of 1970s environmental design and also invented more of their own. All solar panels and greenhouses, the Ark was simultaneously industrial and homey, ungainly and majestic, the very image of a back-to-the-land futurism. Steven Mannell, a professor of architecture and director of the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University, notes that the Ark was exceptional in being “a visionary project that was actually built” (89).
And as a vision, the Ark was a great success. Hearing of its construction in the summer of 1976, counterculturalists from across North America – including Appropriate Technology figures such as Stewart Brand and J. Baldwin – visited PEI to swing a hammer. That September, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau flew in by helicopter to speak at its opening. The Ark received glowing coverage in everything from Chatelaine to the CoEvolution Quarterly. Thousands of tourists, locals, and pilgrims flocked in to learn more about renewable energy, alternative methods of food production, and, perhaps, their own future.
But the Ark’s history became more complicated after the vision became reality. Some of the most inspiring components of the Ark were also the most difficult to implement. The windmill touted to supply electricity to the Ark as well as to the local power grid turned out to be unreliable. The active solar heating system intended to store heat in a basement rock vault was likewise a dud. More critically, the idea of the Ark as a family home – “In a few years, maybe every Island family will be living in its own Ark,” said Premier Alex Campbell – quickly fell apart, as Bergmark and his partner Nancy Willis and her children moved out, exasperated by round-the-clock rubbernecking of their glass house. The technical failures could be spun – legitimately – as successes: the fact that the Ark could be heated just fine with a passive solar heating system and a wood stove demonstrated that environment-friendly living could be achieved with even less technology and cost than had been originally envisioned. But the bioshelter component was a more intrinsic part of the Ark’s identity, as important symbolically as the name ‘Ark’ itself. The Ark became purely a research facility even as an internal report admitted that it was “neither well situated nor suitable” for such a role (82). It closed in 1981, less than five years after opening, even as Small is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher’s associate George McRobie was calling it “one of the most carefully planned and well structured efforts at energy and food self-sufficiency in existence anywhere in the Western world.”
I have long been acquainted with the Ark’s story. I visited it when growing up on PEI. I happened upon it being torn down in 2000, and helped salvage its welcome sign for PEI’s museum system. In 2003, the Ark figured prominently in a book I wrote about PEI’s reactions to the 1970s energy crisis.
But Mannell’s take on the Ark’s history is decidedly more laudatory than mine was. The author’s faculty bio states that he is “an accomplished architect, a passionate environmentalist and an eternal optimist,” and his book attests to all three. He sees the Ark as a grand experiment that was bound to have failures – that is the nature of an experiment – but that taught its architects, the environmental design community, and a broader public lessons that ultimately led to the more energy-efficient buildings that followed. Beyond these concrete results, the Ark’s signal importance to Mannell lies in how it inspired everyone who saw or heard of it, offering “a spirit of critical hope” and “a vision of a compelling, sustainable future” (90).Mannell’s book is a highly flattering portrait of the Ark and all those associated with it. And there are times when that feels like a problem. It should not take the reader until the Afterword by architect Bergmark’s son to learn that his father believed the Ark “a colossal failure” (95), or that what Mannell called the “twee, neo-traditional boutique resort” built atop the Ark’s demolished foundations, “a backward-looking exercise in nostalgia,” (87) was designed by Bergmark’s own firm. And yet “Living Lightly on the Earth” utterly won me over. It offers a finely sketched portrait of idealistic young environmentally-minded architects given the opportunity to build their dream commission, and the material decisions they made while turning dream to reality. The book is gorgeous, with hundreds of drawings, plans, and photos (some, admittedly, too small for these old eyes). Mannell does provide valuable and judicious provincial, national, and international context, but his heart is fixed on the Ark as a structure so, as the dates on the subtitle suggest, the book’s focus is on how the building arose, conceptually and physically. I was perhaps constitutionally incapable of writing such an upbeat book about the Ark, in that I was incapable of unseeing the petty politics that followed and the project’s rapid demise. But I am glad Mannell did. To face the environmental challenges of the 21st century, we are going to need to try things that will inevitably risk failure, and to do that requires hope.
Feature Image: Winter view of the Ark from the southwest, ca. 1977. Solsearch Architects.
 The Institute of Man & Resources: An Environmental Fable (Charlottetown: Island Studies Press, 2003). Just ask me for a copy, I have plenty.
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