The most efficient way to preserve the potential for life, paradoxically, is cold and snow, darkness and ice. The most treasured resources of mankind are the seeds of crops once grown across the globe in small gardens and wild preserves, in forests and wetlands, along river valleys and canyon cliffs. Collected, they offer a glimpse of the potential to fulfill dreams: cures for animal and plant diseases, insect-resistance, drought-tolerance, explosive fertility and exceptional harvests. Seeds are stored by the Global Crop Diversity Trust in an ark – a secure, underground cavern devoted to preserving the world’s plant resources – in the tiny island of Spitsbergen in the arctic Svalbard archipelago of Norway. The treasures are duplicate samples of seeds held in 1400 other gene banks, and in the event of cataclysmic losses of crops and caches worldwide, could be the last survivors. 

The site was chosen because of the permafrost, which naturally maintains temperatures close to freezing year-round, reducing the possibility of seed sprouting. The site is 130 m above sea level, and the island has no history of tectonic activity. The sandstone bedrock of the tunneled site shields the seeds from harmful radiation or exposure to light, with limited supply of oxygen to further slow deterioration. The vaults can store 4.5 million samples, from the estimated 1.5 million distinctly varied crops thought to exist (in 2009, at the one year anniversary of its dedication, it held approximately one-third of known crop species.) The Global Seed Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity, whether through neglect, mismanagement, destruction, war, fire, or other events, either natural or manmade.

Norway’s Directorate of Public Construction and Property led the construction of the vault within an old copper mine, only 800 miles from the North Pole. Crops such as peas may survive for 20-30 years, but sunflowers and grains may survive for hundreds of years. Even with the protections of the site and structure, the seeds will one day lose the ability to germinate. A constant stream of replacement seeds are supplied by taking seeds from the stored samples, planting, harvesting, and replacing them in storage.

The vault is unassailable, beyond the reach of accidental harm and with limited access for intentional acts. But this is not an architecture which can become a model for most communities, or can accommodate most functions. The exposed entrance is beautiful, logical, and practical… but the majority of the project exists in extreme temperatures, low oxygen, and severely restricted light. This prototype exemplifies “inhumane” conditions, but it is not for humans, after all.

The treasures with which we live are susceptible to loss, through burglary and vandalism, flood and fire. As the creators of shelter for humans and their goods, architects take on the mantle of public health, safety, and welfare. We rejoice in light and air, moderate temperatures and access to the outside. We consider security, but not at the expense of beauty. People cannot live in suspended animation like the seeds of Svalbard.

“Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” Epicurus