4 April 2023
DocTalks x MoMA

Oscillating Spaces:
The Ice grotto on the Furkastrasse


Respondent: Tatiana Carbonell ETH/gta

Hotel Belvedere and opposite the bazar of the ice grotto, next to the Rhône Gletscher (1965)

       The Furka pass road, set high in the Swiss Alps between the Canton of Uri and the Canton of Valais, was built in 1867 for strategic military reasons and is accessible roughly from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox. The rest of the year the pass is closed off and isolated. We have to imagine a landscape covered with snow, the extended winter season that happens without human visitors. The Furka comes with these two tempi. The genesis of glaciology, the construction of the sublime, Alpine tourism all find their roots in this region. Famous writers, poets and artists dwelled here and produced new works inspired by the sublime beauty.
       Hidden in the south-central part of the country, the journey to go there is scenic. The curvy road trip has views of glaciers, mountaintops, and forested areas. The train runs along the mountainside. The Furka Pass also takes you close to the Rhone Glacier, source of the Rhone river. In the season to visit, nowadays 250000 people, pass by like in a cortege on cycles or motorcycles, in private and often fast cars or in Alpine Post Buses. During the last little ice age (roughly 16th century till late 19th century) glaciers expanded. Rhone glacier in German is Rhône Gletscher, the little town at its tongue, is called Gletsch. The residents of Gletsch have kept records of the ice since 1602. The availability of farmland and the supply of water was controlled by where the glacier is.
        The curved Hotel Belvedere (from 1869) sits next to the Rhone glacier. Its proprietors, who have been running it for four generations, also run the ice grotto, opposite of the hotel. This presentation will focus on the history of this gletscher and its ice grotto. At least since the 1830s at the mouth of the glacier on the right side, was a natural grotto. Since early 1880s, the door of the glacier is on the left side. The ice grotto is dug each year in May to be ready at the beginning of the tourist season.


Submerging Empire:
Water Infrastructures and Cement Grottoes
in French Aquariums

Columbia University

Respondent: Igor Ekštajn, Harvard

Saltwater aquarium at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Delannoy, “L’aquarium,” published in Musée des familles: lectures de soir (June 1867).

        Descending into a grotto, visitors to the 1867 and 1878 Expositions Universelles in Paris were treated to immersive aquarium installations. In contrast with many other fairground attractions like static panoramas or lifeless displays of goods, aquariums had to perform numerous feats of engineering attuned to the biological and ecological needs of living specimens. In nineteenth-century Paris, this management of fish and regulation of watery milieu required a concerted political effort by the parks administration under Adolphe Alphand. This talk will examine aquariums as a key proving ground for modern technologies—utilizing recently-built canals, ships, iron and glass construction, and cement grottoes.
      Aquariums directly benefited from Second Empire infrastructures and new waterways. At the 1867 Exposition, the freshwater aquarium relied on Haussmann-era aqueducts and canals, while the saltwater aquarium received its water from military barges. In looking at the state’s role in managing drinkable and undrinkable water in aquariums in both Paris and Algiers, I explore the politics of displaying water—now rendered unusable—within aquariums in two cities plagued by insufficient drinking water and waterborne epidemics. Cement grottoes performed similar managerial work by offering a vision of controlled, artificial nature inside aquariums and throughout public parks like the Buttes-Chaumont and the Bois de Boulogne. In manufacturing constructed caverns, Alphand and his collaborator, the rocailleur Eugène Combaz, modernized and secularized a Classical trope previously associated with nymphs and royal gardens—a new, soft-power imperial aesthetic then exported from Paris to parks in Egypt.
        In excavating the techniques and technologies of aquariums, I explore an imperial bio-political project that showcased control over individual fish, fisheries, waterways, ecologies, and Paris’s public spaces. Furthermore, by keeping fish alive and entertaining visitors in immersive spaces, organizers demonstrated the climate-controlling, world-building capacities of modern French engineering.

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