The town of Kiruna in Lapland, Sweden, is known for its Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel and for hosting the recent Arctic Council summit. It also sits within the Arctic Circle, on one of the world’s richest deposits of iron ore. Now in danger of collapse due to extensive deep mining, the city center is to be relocated in a plan developed by White Arkitekter, which includes a new town hall by Henning Larsen.

Kiruna lies 140 km (87 miles) north of the Arctic Circle in an area rich in mineral deposits. The town is of great national importance in Sweden, not only due to the productivity of the mine, but because of its historic, 100-year-old buildings, its ties with the nomadic Sami people and because it’s an area of natural beauty. Internationally, too, Kiruna has become a known as a tourist destination.

The unprecedented new scheme will see the town center "migrating" to a new, more stable location, while community and transportation links are re-established through a forward-thinking plan of development and restoration. White Arkitekter says that it was the long-term strategy of this proposal that won the firm the commission. Since mining is set to continue, the difficulty lay in finding a location that would not become vulnerable in another few decades. The scheme involves a gradual process of building new structures on the eastern side, while dismantling those at the western edge of the town.

The longer view

Rather than creating a new town center that could be threatened in the near future, or a satellite town center outside the mining zone that would make for a disjointed community, White will move the center farther east, but in the direction of established suburbs, and re-orient the community gradually away from the mining deformation at its western edge. The proposed eastward march of Kiruna making an elongated west-east oval, will also improve the integration of the community, according to the architects, absorbing suburban sprawl, and re-establishing some of the natural habitat in the dis-used mining grounds.

It’s something like skipping over an opponent in a game of chess. The town center, instead of lying to the west of the main residential blocks will be set down on the eastern side, currently an area of disconnected neighborhoods thrown up in the 1960s and 70s. As for the 100-year-old town center, it will be a case of taking down the important buildings and preserving whatever is possible for re-use in the new town center and houses. However, as the mining continues, it is hard not to imagine that it may be a case of a town continuously on the run from collapse.

A grand project

Even for a relatively small town and population, this is an enormous undertaking, affecting a population of about 18,000 inhabitants and 3,000 housing units located in an area of about 230,000 square meters (2.5 million square feet). The overall building stock affected by the mining subsidence by the year 2033 is estimated at 480,000 square meters (over 5 million square feet).

Though the town center is the historic and symbolic heart of Kiruna and of this project, the new homes, the transportation infrastructure (including new roads and a cable-car system to navigate over unsafe ground), and services are all required to keep the town going even as construction begins and mining continues apace.

With regard to transportation, one of the most daring innovations is the building of a new cable-car system to take workers to and from the mines over the unstable ground and, it is hoped, to carry tourists, offering a view of the reindeer herding grounds. The cable-car system will also be more adaptable and moveable than surface roads as further deformation occurs.

The salvage "portal"

Key to the success of the scheme is the salvaging and reuse of as much of the historic material as possible (while also making new, more energy-efficient buildings). For this purpose, a site called The Portal has been set aside, which will be a sort of salvager's paradise, or as the architects put it, "the physical ground for making reuse possible."

Here the intact building material will be sorted and allocated for reuse in the new town. The architects say this will be "like a huge factory, but also a meeting place," so that people can see the elements of their town being reassigned for future use.

Necessary destruction

The iron mine is owned by the Swedish government, and it is the mining company who will be paying for the town’s re-location. It might seem there is a pretty strong case for shutting down the mines and opting for the preservation of natural environment, and of the longstanding community. But this iron mine is far too important to Sweden’s economy, accounting for just under one percent of the country’s overall GNP and a significant portion of the world's iron supply.

In addition, further private mines are under operation, or will be in the near future, so rich is the area in gold, silver, and other minerals, such as those used in mobile phone technology (which certainly promotes the argument for recycling rather than throwing out your old phones).

At 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) below ground, this is the deepest iron mine in the world. The mining company aim to stop the mine when it reaches a depth of 1,365 meters (4,500 ft), but the architects are skeptical. "We expect they’ll go further," says Mikael Stenqvist of White Arkitekter, a lead designer on the project. "They predict that they will reach this level in about 2033, but if there is still a demand for iron in the world then of course they could continue." The mine is also the largest employer for the citizens of Kiruna.

Architecture from the past, for the future

The residents of Kiruna have been living in a kind of limbo for over a decade since they first learned that the ground was giving way beneath them. Many were reluctant to repair or maintain their houses, uncertain what the future would bring. The first tangible sign that the plan for the town is being implemented, that there is a real future for Kiruna, will be when the new town hall, designed by Danish firm Henning Larsen, begins construction in 2014.

The current town hall is the building most at risk. So, though this is a very practical beginning, it also has huge portent for the inhabitants. The new building will be a modern, circular structure, already nicknamed the Crystal for the shape of the inner building, which sits inside an outer ring, and for its relation to the mineral deposits on which the town depends.

Responding to the sub-arctic climate, Henning Larsen created the rounded form so that it presents less resistance to the prevailing winds. The shape will also prevent snow build-up against the structure. The company has also seized the chance to present a more communal building, adding an art museum, learning environment and restaurant to the town hall facilities.

When the new building is completed in 2016, the historic town hall will be taken down and some parts salvaged for reuse. The old clock tower will be moved to the new town square.

The Sami herding grounds and sustainability

White Arkitekter is known for its socially responsive and sustainable ethos, and the new plan builds in sustainability and community integration. The mine and the subsequent development of the city once pushed the nomadic Sami people, and their reindeer herds, away from the area. However, a relationship has developed around Kiruna and the Sami hold a parliament within the city, making it an important point of contact for this relatively small population, who are yet so widely known for their struggle to preserve their traditional lifestyle and heritage.

In an odd twist of fate, and a conscious effort by the architects, the mining deformation will result in some of the old herding grounds being restored once the precarious surface becomes stable again. The plan also proposes harnessing some of the heat energy from the mining operations (currently ventilated out as waste) to power the city. By setting up a small power plant next to the mine "you can make the town self-sufficient for heating and get free electricity," says Stenqvist.

Though the electricity is obviously not entirely free, since the mine demands high usage, the city could become a net-zero consumer by piggy-backing onto such a large-scale user. The overall design of the housing and the town center will be geared toward efficiency, dealing with the prevailing winds and cold (temperatures typically reach -15° C/5° F in winter) and creating habitable micro-climates.

The wishes of a community

This is a project that will no doubt divide opinion, since mining operations are such destructive forces on the land but also here support a community, a country and perhaps may help to sustain part of Sweden’s traditional heritage. The people of Kiruna, through wide consultation, expressed a desire, according to Stenqvist, "for a vibrant city, but they also want to be outside and to be close to nature, they are very concerned with outdoor activity."

The scheme, therefore, deliberately encircles the town in open natural habitat, which is only a few blocks away. However, perhaps it is those seemingly conflicting desires that help to explain the overall struggle others might have with this unprecedented effort – to maintain a community and a heritage and even a natural habitat alongside such a parlous, but economically crucial, industry.

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