Alaskan Architectural Overview

There’s a common misconception about Alaskan building, sorry to burst someone’s bubble – but igloos are not a common sight in Alaska. The natural beauty of Alaska is breathtaking. The nature of Alaska is wild, huge, and magnificent, from the snow-capped peak of Mount McKinley to the volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, from the boundless treeless tundra of the North Slope to the majestic spruce and deep fjords of the Southeast. Humans, like their architecture, are small in comparison. The buildings depict attempts to integrate with, disregard, or tame this far northern terrain, whether they are isolated constructions made of indigenous materials in the wilderness, wood-frame bungalows in tidy little towns, or glass and metal high-rises in cities.

The structures show personal attitudes and cultural precepts as representations of ways of life, reflecting the diversity of people who created them. Alaska’s architecture has been influenced by three major cultural groups: Natives, Russians, and Americans. Even though each of these groups has its factions, they are all united by a common goal. The Natives built houses that were climate-responsive and made of indigenous materials. The Russians brought their horizontal log, blocklike homes to America because they were ideal for much of the land they lived in.

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Alaskan Architecture_©todaysalaska.com

This overview begins with a review of Eskimo, Aleut, Athapaskan Indian, and Northwest Coast Indian traditional architecture, then moves on to the evolution and extinction of traditional homes in the years following encounters with whites. Following that, the settlement and architecture of Russia are discussed. Aside from a few structures from the Russian period that have survived, Russian Orthodox churches continue to be erected in traditional styles, and an investigation of their architecture connects the Russian period to the present. The Ameri part is the final segment.

Types of Alaskan Architectural Style

1. Russian Colonial

Russian Colonial architecture is the least common form of colonial architecture in the United States. In the late 1700s, Russians began to settle in North America. The Russian Colonial aesthetic emerged when settlements grew in the Aleutians, Kodiak Island, and along Alaska’s southern coast.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Rectangular or polygonal plan 
  • Horizontal interlocking log construction
  • Community on a promontory at the mouth of a river or the head of a bay
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Russian American Magazin, Kodiak_©en.wikipedia.org

2. Rustic

This design is widespread in rural areas of the United States. Rustic-style buildings, when done well, are responsive to their surroundings. Subordination, non-intrusiveness, and contemplation of the past are all key characteristics contained in the approach.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Walls that have been fractured 
  • Eaves that are overhanging 
  • Windows with little panes
  • Made with materials that are readily available in the area
  • Minimal embellishment
  • Foundation made of stone
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Skaters Cabin, Mendenhall, Juneau_©www.recreation.gov

3. Art Deco

Commercial buildings frequently adopt the style, while it is rarely seen in residential architecture. Zigzag Modern, Cinema Style, Depression Modern, and Jazz Modern are some of the other names for the style.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Focus on the vertical
  • There are stepped or flat rooflines.
  • Concrete is a common building material that is used to create smooth white surfaces. However, there are polychromatic examples of painted concrete.
  • At least one of the essential decorative items: zigzags, chevrons, sunbursts, fluting, banding, or other Industrial Age references
  • The structure is decorated with glass brick and tile.
  • Huge windows with metal sashes are common.
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Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage_©www.re-thinkingthefuture.com

4. Curtain Wall

In Alaska throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the curtain wall was a popular architecture type for commercial structures. The outside curtain wall was frequently a prefabricated structure for hanging windows and external sheathing. Porcelain enamel panels, bare aggregate, and stone veneers were all used as sheathing.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Rectangular massing 
  • Metal skeleton that depicts the superstructure 
  • Flat roof
  • Extensive usage of glass
  • Contextualism is lacking.
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Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage_©www.re-thinkingthefuture.com

5. Brutalism

One of the forefathers of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, used the term to characterize his material choices frequently. Although concrete is the most common material used in this design, it also includes glass, wood, brick, and stone.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Concrete that has been exposed
  • Disproportionately organized to highlight the sculptural characteristics of concrete 
  • Heavy, blocky form to highlight the sculptural qualities of concrete
  • Representation of functionality in the outside shape, whether it’s human or architectural.
  • The enormous concrete appears to have voids for windows and doors.
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Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage_©www.re-thinkingthefuture.com

6. Corporate Modern

Corporate Modern or Slick Skins, which derived its influences from Architect Mies van der Roe’s principles, gained traction in the 1950s with smooth external glass sheathing. Larger panes, considerably enhanced, and the capacity to make glass thinner to form curves were among the advancements in window technology that made this style possible.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Natural surfaces that are wet and shiny 
  • Smooth sculptural textures
  • Rectangular volumes in general
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Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage_©www.re-thinkingthefuture.com

7. Postmodernism

The criticism of the Modern Movement is known as postmodernism. In favor of a wide range of materials and inspirations, this style rejects the purity of form and function.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Visible entrances
  • Incorporation of both traditional and modern construction processes 
  • Use of polychromatic paints or materials
  • A variety of geometric shapes
  • Traditional or vernacular architecture references
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Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Anchorage_©www.tripadvisor.com

8. Deconstructivism 

The style is aesthetic in nature, and there is no logical reasoning offered. This approach necessitates the disassembly of construction components and their re-assembly in a new method.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • Smooth external surfaces • Abstract in character
  • Shapes and forms contrast
  • Extensive areas of a single material (glass, metals, stones, etc.)
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Residential Building, South Addition, Anchorage_©www.wsj.com

9. Neo-expressionism

Neo-Expressionism is roughly based on the early twentieth-century German Expressionist movement. NeoExpressionism is sculpture-like and dramatic in appearance, and it is a protest of modern ideals.

Primary Stylistic Features include:

  • non-traditional structural elements 
  • sculptural shapes
  • Formal alterations to elicit emotion
  • A natural look
  • Materials for research
  • Roof designs that aren’t what you’d expect.
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ANSEP Building, University of Alaska Anchorage_©www.davisconstructors.com

References-

ALASKA ARCHITECTURAL STYLE GUIDE. (n.d.). [online] Available at: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/StyleGuide.pdf.

Anonymous (2018). Alaska. [online] SAH ARCHIPEDIA. Available at: https://sah-archipedia.org/essays/AK-01

[Accessed 11 Oct. 2021].

RTF | Rethinking The Future. (2020). 15 Places to visit in Alaska for the Travelling Architect. [online] Available at: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architects-lounge/a1056-15-places-to-visit-in-alaska-for-the-travelling-architect/

[Accessed 11 Oct. 2021]

Author

Abhishek Guha is an architecture undergraduate who wishes to create life altering spaces & experiences through his designs . His interests - writing, fashion, and cooking, are as erratic as he is. As a spontaneous extrovert who enjoys meeting new people, he seeks knowledge about the architectural paradigm while exploring the world.

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