Winter Palaces | The Story of the Igloo

100 years ago today, Robert J. Flaherty’s silent documentary-film, ‘Nanook of the North’ was released to awe-struck audiences.

Following Nanook and his wife and children – an Inuit family from north Quebec in Canada – the film showed scenes from a life that must have seemed alien to much of 1920s American society. From building igloos to hunting walruses, Nanook’s day-to-day activities were a far cry from the modernist trends (cars, skyscrapers, silent movies) that were sweeping through America’s big cities. 

Today, we look at Nanook of the North with a much more critical eye than its contemporary audiences. We know, for example, that many of the scenes were staged; that some of the characters were made up or that their names were changed; and that some of the more ‘primitive’ tools and techniques that Nanook (real name Allakariallak) uses were added by the director. We’re also more familiar with different cultures than we were 100 years ago: with a greater availability to travel, and much broader access to visual information, many of us have seen images of diverse indigenous lifestyles – in documentaries, films, and on the internet. 

But despite its controversies, Nanook of the North remains a cornerstone of cinematic history – and is remembered, in part, for an extraordinary sequence that shows the construction of an igloo. In the scene, Nanook and his family carve large blocks of snow and stack them in a ring. As they work, they cut out new blocks from the floor, so that the igloo gradually sinks as the walls rise and curve in to form a domed roof.

The interior shots were faked for this scene – an igloo big enough to fit a camera meant that the dome would collapse; any smaller, and there was not sufficient light to film – but the external scenes of construction are genuine: and they remain as compelling to watch today as 100 years ago. 

This continued fascination is testament not only to the filmmaking, but to the incredible feat of engineering that makes the igloo possible. For centuries, Inuit across the Arctic lived in igloos during the cold, winter season. Small igloos could house a family – but larger structures could also be made to accommodate up to 20 people (it was a tight squeeze – but huddling for warmth would have been a bonus!).

Traditional igloos are made – just like in the 1922 film – by cutting out blocks of pukaangajuq, or compacted ‘snow house snow’. The blocks are built upwards and inwards, while the floor is dug away, and narrow passageways are sometimes cut in below ground level, to provide entry. Snow blocks are used to cover the entrance, and windows can be cut out and glazed with lake ice. At the end of the construction, any remaining gaps are filled with snow, so that the inside space remains remarkably warm (it can reach as high as 15 degrees Celsius!).

Since the release of Nanook of the North, modern, European-style homes have largely replaced the igloo as the most common housing type amongst Inuit communities, though these snow homes still remain important cultural – and often practical – structures. They’re also a reminder that the building of domestic structures is often circumscribed by the natural world; and that, for all of our sophisticated, modern engineering techniques, sometimes the simplest structures are the most enduring. 

Words by Mae Losasso

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