The Ark, '70s experiment in sustainable living, explored at new exhibit

An architectural experiment in sustainable living built on P.E.I. in the 1970s is the subject of a new exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

Confederation centre examines environmental building that attracted many to Spry Point 40 years ago

The Ark was built at Spry Point, P.E.I. in 1976. (BGHJ Architects)

It attracted hippies, hippie-gawkers, tourists, researchers in sustainable living and even Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

It's the Ark.

The architectural experiment in sustainable living built at Spry Point, P.E.I., in the 1970s is the subject of a new exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

The exhibit "Living Lightly on the Earth," which opens Oct. 22, looks at the construction of the Ark, described as "an early exploration in weaving together the sun, wind, biology and architecture for the benefit of humanity."

'A vision and a reality'

The Ark was completed 40 years ago by Solsearch Architects and the New Alchemy Institute, and its opening day attracted hundreds including prime minister Trudeau.

Exhibition Curator, Steven Mannell, who directs the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Angela Walker/CBC)

"Even today, many people in the Maritimes and around the world have heard of the P.E.I. Ark, and are inspired by the vision it represents," exhibition curator Steven Mannell said in a statement. "But it's mostly understood in almost mythical terms. This exhibition presents the Ark as both a vision, and a reality."

Mannell explained some of the features of the house to CBC's Mainstreet P.E.I.

"The south side of the building was a greenhouse, and in the greenhouse there were a number of large fish tanks where they were farming fish using a land-based farming system," he said. "They had planting beds where they were growing market vegetables ... and there was a kind of symbiosis between the planting and the fish tanks, in the sense that the excess fish water would be used [as] nutrient-rich fertilizer for the planting beds. Cuttings from the planting beds would be part of the fish food."

'Sunny, green world of possibility'

There was also solar heating, and a section of the greenhouse meant for a family's day-to-day needs, directly connected to the kitchen.

David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund of Solsearch Architects at the southeast corner of the Ark for Prince Edward Island, 1976. (Confederation Centre of the Arts)

"So there was a kind of sense that you were living in this year-round, sunny, green world of possibility," Mannell said.

The exhibition includes architectural models and plans, photographs, texts, and a new video featuring project architects David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund. The exhibition and a companion book focus on the conception and building of the Ark, the opening day and the early months of operation.

"The greatest impact wasn't the Ark Project itself, it was the dialogue the Ark continues to inspire in our lives and work," Bergmark said in a statement.

'A gift from heaven'

Hammarlund said the Ark, his first professional commission, was "a gift from heaven."

Four people lived in the home for about a year and a half, before it was passed on to a provincial agency looking at alternative energy. Over time, it was used as a restaurant, motel, bed and breakfast, and community centre.

"Ultimately in the late '90s, it was sold off one more time and it was largely demolished and replaced with the Inn [at Spry Point]," Mannell said.

The exhibition has its own website, where members of the public are encouraged to share their own stories and photos of the Ark.

The opening reception is Oct. 22 and the exhibition will remain until the end of April.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet P.E.I.