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Moving Kiruna

Hattie Hartman looks at White Arkitekter/Ghilardi + Hellsten’s plan to relocate Sweden’s northernmost town two kilometres eastwards

Kiruna, an iron ore mining town in Swedish Lapland 87 miles into the Arctic Circle, is sinking.  Ten years ago, Sweden’s state-owned mining company LKAB, which supplies 90 per cent of the European Union’s iron ore, announced that Kiruna’s 20,000 residents would have to move, due to subsidence resulting from its Kirunavaara mine on the town’s western edge. Investing over £1 billion to secure underground operations for the next 30 years, LKAB launched an international competition for a sustainable masterplan.

Seeing off competition from Denmark’s BIG and Netherlands-based MVRDV, White Arkitekter, together with Oslo-based Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter, was appointed in March 2013. Construction of the first phase of a 30-year relocation of Kiruna to a site 2km east of the existing settlement is now under way.  The first phase includes infrastructure and services and a new town centre. A new town hall by Henning Larsen is due to complete in 2016.

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In addition to iron ore mining, Kiruna is home to the Institute of Space Physics and a European Space Agency spaceport and has the fastest-growing rate of small business start-ups in Sweden, also driven by the town’s imminent transformation.​The aspiration is that Kiruna will in time diversify and be less reliant on mining.  The town is a jumping-off point for excursions into Lapland, including the Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel, just 15km east, which attracts 50,000 visitors a year. Festivals in the town already attract outsiders and could be the seeds for a tourist industry.

The original Kiruna was inaugurated in 1900 by LKAB when a British firm completed the Ore Line, a westbound rail link to the ice-free Norwegian coast, which enabled the export of iron ore. Initially planned as a model company town, with streets laid out to shelter houses from the strong prevailing winds and a heated tramway to transport workers to the mine, Kiruna sprang up to service the mine. LKAB built the school, the hospital and the red timber church (1912), recently voted the most beautiful church in Sweden. Over the next century, the town grew organically and today car-dominated clusters of low-density housing sprawl along either side of the E10 vehicular artery.

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Reassuming its role as benefactor in creating the model town a century ago, LKAB is funding Kiruna’s relocation, with £332 million already committed to the new town centre. The masterplanning strategy calls for incremental change, expanding slowly eastward to ensure Kiruna remains a coherent city throughout the process. White partner Mikael Stenqvist explains: ‘Kiruna will be like a walking millipede: crawling, moving slowly east on a thousand feet.’

The masterplanning challenge has been to harness the best aspects of the town’s collective past and shape it into an appealing vision for the future - essentially a branding exercise for a new community with the involvement of the future residents. The social dimension of the relocation was critical, explains White partner Krister Lindstedt. Residents had to be brought on board because they are to purchase homes in the new Kiruna, so they are directly impacted in a very personal way. Part of LKAB’s agenda is to attract and retain skilled workers in Sweden’s northernmost town by creating an alluring place to live.

The architects’ most urgent remit was to quell residents’ anxiety, caused initially by the effects of subsidence on buildings and heightened as plans for the town’s relocation remained in limbo. White’s in-house social anthropologist articulates the ambition for the new Kiruna as ‘the most democratic urban transformation in the world’. Intensive consultation revealed that the move itself was not the root of anxiety. ‘Miners have movement in their genes,’ explains Lindstedt. The need for certainty about the future proved to be the primary concern and this hinged on developing a masterplan that people could identify with and support.

Three main findings of the consultation impacted the design of the masterplan: a desire for greater proximity to nature, more communal meeting places and reduced car dependency. Many residents were originally attracted to Kiruna because they are outdoor enthusiasts. Over a quarter of the municipality of greater Kiruna’s 2,000ha area is designated as national park, nature reserve or other sanctuary. The new town plan has been developed around a series of green fingers and a major park, which preserves established natural landscape, particularly important because plants grow slowly in the Arctic climate. Housing will never be more than three blocks from nature.

A mapping exercise identified more than 400 clubs and associations, many related to outdoor sports but also including theatre and other cultural activities. Numerous meeting places have been woven into the new town’s fabric from the central square to courtyard housing. Kiruna’s historic church will be relocated, unaltered and in its entirety.

Between the new and the old Kiruna, a large DIY facility, the Kiruna ‘portal’, is envisioned as a high-tech construction recycling depot equipped with state-of-the-art technology, where dismantled components of buildings can be stocked and reused.

Good public transport to link the airport in the east to the mine in the west is a key premise. Bioclimatic design has informed street layouts to reduce wind speed, which is also achieved by articulating building facades and roofs to create wind friction. Likewise, the green fingers serve as snow banks and wind shields.

Aspirations for carbon neutrality are high and a range of options is being explored, including district heating that captures waste heat from the mine and energy generation powered by wind, which is abundant.

How the plans for the new Kiruna will pan out is too soon to tell. Though the masterplanning commission is complete, a commitment to quality architecture has been demonstrated by Henning Larsen’s appointment to design the new town hall. For now, there are high hopes for the prospect of a walkable city styled in new Swedish vernacular.

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