Located on the periphery of downtown Yellowknife some 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the building was designed and constructed in the early 1990s as the first permanent home for the territory’s government. Working with architecture firms Pin/Mathews and Matsuzaki Wright Architects, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander sought to honor the territory’s relatively undisturbed tundra and taiga landscape and minimize disturbance to sensitive bog and boreal forest ecosystems within the eleven-acre lakeside site. Perched among rocky outcroppings at the edge of a white spruce forest, the low-rise, domed building is set back from a forested entrance path to overlook Frame Lake and an adjacent peat bog.
Responding to multiple challenges posed by the site’s subarctic climate, remoteness, fragile plant communities, and rough terrain, Oberlander developed several design strategies to preserve ecosystems and enhance the relationship between structure and landscape. Using cuttings and seeds taken from the site, she created a plant palette consisting exclusively of existing native vegetation. Because there were no nurseries in Yellowknife, plants, including bearberry (kinnikinnick), red osier dogwood, mountain cranberry, and paper birch, were propagated in Vancouver before being returned and integrated with existing plantings. As part of a so-called “invisible mending” strategy, planting occurred only on disturbed and bare sections of land. In some cases, peat mats removed whole during construction were transferred elsewhere, alongside new swaths of cloudberry and sedges. Comprising plantings of tissue-cultured saxifrage and volunteer birches and pines, a green roof is nourished by a growth medium formulated from recycled clay excavated during construction. Appearing to float above the bog and taiga vegetation, concrete boardwalks connect the site with a 4.5-mile-long trail that encircles the lake.