Massive snow palace nears completion

by Eric Smith

Few Montrealers are cheering the cold temperatures and abundance of snow we've experienced so far this winter. But Pieter Sijpkes, associate professor of architecture at McGill, couldn't be happier.

Weather conditions are ideal for the construction of a replica of Rome's Pantheon on the lower campus's athletic field.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the School of Architecture as well as the University's 175th birthday, Sijpkes is reproducing the two-millenium-old monument using the season's most readily available material-snow.

As the Reporter goes to press, the vertical walls of the structure are in place. Over the coming days architecture students will participate in the construction of the building's domed roof and its interior detail. The finishing touches should be completed for the 175th anniversary kick-off event, a day-long winter carnival on January 26.

According to Sijpkes, Montreal has a long tradition of building ice and snow palaces. Liveliest in the early part of the century when the city was treated to intricate castles of translucent ice, the tradition has been on the wane in recent years.

Sijpkes believes his Pantheon will help renew interest in the art form and says Mayor Pierre Bourque has already expressed interest in sponsoring similar projects next year.

Of course, Sijpkes himself never lost interest in the frozen architectural medium. As a student at McGill, he experimented with ice sculpture, stretching fabric between poles and spraying them with layer after layer of water to create elegant tent forms. He has also used milk cartons to manufacture a type of ice brick, the building block for fragile arches that push the gravitational boundaries of stable structures to their limit.

With the Pantheon, though, Sijpkes is relying on tried and true structural design.

"We were looking for a proper model and chose the Pantheon because of its massiveness," he says. "The Pantheon is an astonishing building. And what's good for the Pantheon is good for us. If the Pantheon can survive wars and famine for 2,000 years we should be able to get through a few weeks of sunshine."

The shape of the Pantheon is one of elegant simplicity. The perfectly spherical dome has a radius equal to the height of the vertical wall such that a large globe would fit snugly inside. Says Sijpkes, "It is a monument to the number pi."

The finished structure will have four-foot-deep walls and weigh approximately 400 tons. It will likely be a fixture on the campus for the rest of winter.

For construction, Sijpkes has relied on help from McGill's Facilities Management crew, who have been bulldozing the snow from the athletic field and dumping it into the plywood molds that shape the walls of the structure. McGill facilities workers have been "marvelously cooperative," according to Sijpkes, working in extremely cold temperatures and coping with some of the difficulties of raising the snow 16 feet to get to the top layer of the outside wall.

In the August heat, when Sijpkes was planning his Pantheon, he came up with several scenarios to cope with weather contingencies. If not for this year's bounty of snow, he would have had to rely on manufactured ice blocks for construction, a significantly costlier option.

The use of ice would have given the building a translucent look, but Sijpkes is pleased with the appearance of his snow walls. The dirt that the bulldozer inevitably picks up with its cargo of snow has given the Pantheon's walls a veining that the architect likens to marble and makes the structure a closer match to its Roman sister.

Sijpkes has big plans for his Pantheon once it is completed. "I want to have a huge barbecue, to use it as a party room," he says. "I expect ladies in fur dresses."

Thirty-two feet in diameter, the McGill Pantheon will hold as many as 200 guests.

Also in the works is a plan to adorn the dome with 100 torches for an evening, effectively turning the building into a massive birthday cake for the School of Architecture which it faces on the west.

If Sijpkes has his way, the structure will be allowed to come to a natural death in the spring. "I would like to let it fall into a ruinous shape," he says.

The sunny side of the building would melt leaving half of the Pantheon standing and looking much like a real stone ruin. But he believes that once decay sets in, more safety-minded members of the McGill community will have the Pantheon torn down.