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Despite an active volcano, intense winds, and a location 10 days by boat from its nearest neighbor, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas — the most remote human settlement in the world — has endured for nearly two centuries. The community, located on the islands of Tristan da Cunha, is looking to the future in anticipation of its bicentennial in 2016, and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is hosting a Design Ideas Competition.
The open call is “seeking ideas to help the community become self-sustainable and ensure that Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is viable for future generations.” Now before you start drawing up plans for shipping container homes or solar arrays for this far-flung British territory, please take note of the almost absurd extremes that characterize the everyday lives of its roughly 280 inhabitants.
“Many would-be visitors have sailed to Tristan, but failed to land,” Tristan da Cunha’s official site ominously warns. The archipelago includes four islands, although Edinburgh of the Seven Seas — or “the Settlement,” as the Tristanians call it — is the only permanently inhabited site. Alongside Tristan are the islands of Nightingale, Gough, and the aptly named Inaccessible. Most of Tristan is taken up by the towering slope of a volcano, with the metal-roofed structures of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas clustered in its shadow. Back in 1961, the eruption of that volcano forced the entire population to evacuate; remarkably the majority returned in 1963. Alas, their essential crayfish factory was destroyed. Aside from the community and the volcano, the spare geographic features of Tristan include the Ridge-Where-the-Goat-Jump-Off.
The UK annexed Tristan da Cunha back in 1816, and a military presence was set up whose primary purpose was to keep the French from freeing Napoleon from the relatively nearby Saint Helena (1,500 miles away). Shipwrecks are not uncommon in the area, as even the harbor at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is so shallow that most ocean vessels can’t fit. At times, shipwreck survivors have made up a large chunk of the community’s population. Houses in the 19th century were mostly built from driftwood, some of it washed up remnants of shipwrecks. In some ways the island’s inhabitants have entered the 21st century, and they buy their goods from the few establishments on Tristan da Cunha with the British Pound, but internet access remains limited and low-bandwidth. The inhabitants of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas have only seven different surnames, so everyone knows everyone and family relations run deep. And for would-be tourists, the island is only accessible by boat (there is no airstrip) for about 60 days of the year, and once you’re there, there’s only one road, and rare are the cars that drive it.
This is all to say that designing for Edinburgh of the Seven Seas presents some incredibly unique challenges, but it’s also an exceptional place. Considering how connected and accessible much of the world is today, it remains a place where people obstinately survive. The RIBA competition calls for an examination of the built environment to consider energy efficiency and a way for the Settlement to be self-sustaining. Currently diesel engines and bottled gas are the town’s main sources of energy. According to the competition brief, “[t]he Island trialled a small wind turbine in the mid-1980s, but this was destroyed after a few days by the high winds, and since then, there has been a general reluctance to re-visit renewable energy technology.” To meet the island’s goal of 30–40% renewable energy by 2020, it will take some sturdier technology.
The main source of food for inhabitants of the island is livestock that graze freely and crops — mainly potatoes grown in an area called “the Patches” — and both need better systems to keep them going year-round. There’s also the issue of the architecture, with the 120 homes (all owned by Tristanians as local law forbids sale to non-residents) facing the end of their structural life cycles, and with a major limitation of available building resources. Above all, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas wants to remain self-sufficient, and bring in experts to advise on how to keep this improbable pocket of life going for another 200 years.
Read more about the Tristan da Cunha Design Ideas Competition online at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The deadline to enter the first phase is June 2.