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Ultimate North: Lapland

And yet Rovaniemi is an architectural draw, thanks to a small bouquet of masterpieces designed by the Finnish Modernist Alvar Aalto. Most of Lapland was razed by the Nazis between 1944 and 1945, after Finland's uneasy alliance with Germany turned sour, and Aalto contributed a handful of structures to the rebuilding of Rovaniemi. Most significant is a monumental cluster of buildings that was begun in the sixties; it includes the city hall, a library, and a major theater and concert hall. The theater, Lappia Hall, is outwardly the most striking: vast and white, with a roof contoured like mountains. For the library, Aalto designed truncated cones that pierce the ceiling and long light-catching scoops at the tops of walls: these combine to wring a glowing interior out of one of the most depressing skies I've witnessed. (Not every day here is grim, I should point out—Lapland offers me more than a few incandescent afternoons. Of course, I am visiting close to the spring equinox, when the days are almost as long as the nights, as they should be in a sane and just world.)

Having paid homage to Aalto, I proceed to the Snow Show. Its curator, Lance Fung, is known as an iconoclast, but getting some of the world's greatest artistic egos—each artist was paired with an architect—to collaborate on melting ephemera was a demonically inspired concept. Yoko Ono and Arata Isozaki built a claustrophobic labyrinth enclosed by 30-foot-tall walls of ice bricks; Tatsuo Miyajima and Tadao Ando created a translucent, curving ice tunnel. As I visit the pieces, the ones that impress me most are those that explicitly anticipate and celebrate their liquid doom. Kiki Smith, one of my favorite artists, and the architect Lebbeus Wood embedded sculptures beneath the surface of a frozen pond. They are still obscured by the melting ice, but I sense the coming revelation of vaguely anthropomorphic figures: the bodies of the drowned.

The piece I am most excited to see is Diller + Scofidio's, created with the artist John Roloff. For years I have written experimental narrative scripts for architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, but they never fly me out to view our finished work. And so I have contributed to dance theater in Belgium, a motel room in Santa Fe, giant lips in Switzerland...all sorts of intriguing things, none of which I have ever seen.

I know that neither Liz nor Ric made it to Finland to experience their work (which was, as architecture generally is, constructed by others). I am cheerful at the prospect of sauntering into their studio to remark: "Wonderful piece you guys did in Lapland. So much more powerful than it was on paper. Too bad you missed it."

Their sculpture is installed in Kemi, an industrial town to the south of Rovaniemi. The piece consists, I've been told, of huge ice cubes formed out of gallons of brand-name bottled water—each cube a different brand—set into the surface of a frozen lake like the squares of a chessboard. It takes 11/2 hours to drive to Kemi; at last, I pull up to the ticket kiosk, gleefully rubbing my hands. "So," I say to the woman at the window, "where exactly is the Diller + Scofidio piece?" "You missed it," she says sadly. "It collapsed."

After my failure to achieve a postmodern revenge (how does a pond "collapse"?), I head to the North, to see whether I can get some Idea of it.I think hard about what sort of activity is embedded in the history and mythology of this domain, and come up with a plan: I will go skiing.

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