the architecture of environmental disaster

seaweed farmhouses of læsø island, denmark, c. 1600


the many islands that make up denmark have at times become isolated experiments in how we humans inhabit the planet. none more so than the island of læsø which became a desert around 1600 after the local production of salt had run amok over a period of 2-300 years.


greed and heavy taxation by the church had increased production decade by decade until there was hardly any forest left on the island, every tree burnt to boil away sea water and harvest the salt. a last-ditch attempt by the crown to turn things round by making it a capital offense to fell trees proved too little, too late.


over a few years the remaining plants, mostly heather, were gone and then the turf itself was cut up and thrown on the fires.


with nothing left to burn, the industry collapsed - and with nothing left to contain the sand which makes up this raised seabed of an island, so did the entire local environment, sand soon covering all the remaining arable land.


even farms and churches were buried under the shifting sands and everything was lost in this man-made disaster. the people who stayed on the island had to reinvent life there.


today, 400 years after the event, you can still see its impact. a handful of farms built at the time are extant and they resemble no other buildings in denmark, even if the builders attempted to stay true to established typologies.


with no trees available, these houses were built entirely from salvaged shipwrecks, the complex curvature of ribs and hulls displayed at random in their facades. and with no thatch left, the roofs were covered with seaweed collected on the beach after autumn storms.


eventually, shaping seaweed roofs became something of an artform and maybe that is where hope lies in this is, however, a lost art since the craft was not passed on in the 20th century. I have seen recent repairs and they are pitiable. on top of that, the particular seaweed used is dying out.


today, the island has been replanted with trees to bind the sand but you still come across strangely stranded sand dunes in the middle of it.


what followed.


EDIT, sept. 2011: the craft of building seaweed roofs has over the last few years been resuscitated with money from the realdania foundation. we saw the first results this summer and it is very convincing.


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Taken on September 11, 2008