The New Kiruna: a meeting place for past and future

Kiruna's new town square.

It takes a village…to move a city? An entire Arctic town is being forced to relocate after the world’s largest iron ore mine got the green light to gobble up the land under the city. The lead architect for the operation talks about how the people of Kiruna have had to come together to create a new home.

Take a good look around Kiruna because in a few years it won’t be here anymore.

“Here” is the valley where the town has nestled since 1900. “Here” is the land in the shadow of a massive terraced tailings mountain where the refuse from decades of iron ore mining has been accumulating as the drilling machines bore ever deeper into the earth.

The Kaunisvaara mine overlooks Kiruna.

It’s the behemoth Kirunavaara mine, owned by LKAB, one of the top employers in the city and the driving force of the local economy, which is forcing Kiruna – the entire town – to pack up and move out.

“There are two options for them,” says Mikael Stenqvist, architect and urban planner with the Swedish firm contracted to organize the move, White Arkitekter. “Shut down the mine and have mass unemployment as a result because part of their economy is revolving around the mine, [or] the other option is to relocate.”

The mass eviction has been in the works for over a decade. The first notice that the town would need to move was in 2003, and people were initially anxious about the plan. Stenqvist calls it “the strangest commission we ever got”.

Kirunavaara is the deepest and largest iron ore mine in the world and has been in use since the beginning of the 20th century. Producing over 26 million tons of iron ore annually the mine has been expanded to penetrate 4,478 ft into the ground – right under Kiruna.

“There are a lot of examples relocating mining societies…but that’s [usually] workers living close to the mine,” Stenqvist says. “This is a 100-year-old city with a diverse economy. Almost 20,000 people will be affected.”

Fissures in the ground were noticed in 2003 and in 2007 the town was officially given notice that it would be moving two miles east. In 2013 White Arkitekter won the design contest for the ‘new Kiruna’.

The new Kiruna 2033 plans.

The new Kiruna plan for 2100.

“It is a tremendous chance to get things right now and get the best of two worlds with the best of the old town and the best of the new town,” Stenqvist says. “A new super-sustainable city with public rounds that people really enjoy and finding meeting places makes the businesses flourish and attracting tourism and attracting new inhabitants…being really vibrant yet, a strange remote city in the wilderness.”

It’s not often that an architect gets to design an entire city in consultation with the people who will live there.

For the last year and a half Stenqvist, the lead architect for the relocation and rebuild, and the White Arkitekter team have been canvassing the city, speaking to everyone from shopkeepers to homemakers to miners to find out what it is people want from the new city.

“At first glance at this task you think the physical relocation is the challenge. But that’s fairly comprehensive,” Stenqvist says. “The challenge is within people, how they are affected and how they can come on board and make this together.”

The new city centre for Kiruna.

Kirunites want a dense city with easy access to nature: Stenqvist says all homes will be within three blocks from forest or trails.

People wanted a green city: Stenqvist says buildings will be extra insulated (temperatures can plummet to -22 C) and heat will be recouped from the mine, which is currently letting out waste heat around the clock.

People wanted to preserve Kiruna’s heritage: White Arkitekter says it’s committed to this, but it’s also their biggest challenge. For example the city’s church – once voted the most beautiful public building in Sweden – will be moved piece-by-piece to its new location.

“It’s such an important building in their identity and their heritage,” Stenqvist says. “It’s really one they are proud of.”

As it has been since the church was built, on a clear day, visitors walk out the door and are confronted with the steely grey mound of the mine and the smoke stakes belching grey-black clouds into the air.

The church is unmissable in Kiruna, if only because the ox blood red colour stands out, and is a massive tourist draw every year. It’s a playful building where Swedish church meets Sami traditions. Made entirely of wood it looks more like a Lapp cottage, which is the aesthetic the original architect was asked to deliver – fittingly, by the president of the mine.

Kiruna’s church will be dismantled and moved piece by piece to it’s new home.

It’s unlikely the church architect suspected the mine would grow and become such a vital economic institution that one day it would be able to overpower the ecclesiastical bastion of the community.

“If something went wrong with moving the church…that would be a disaster,” Stenqvist says.

He is confident that the move and rebuild can be pulled off though. Despite its complex look, the church’s “log cabin” structure is what may be its saving grace. The log and notch style – much like modern day Lego – can be taken apart, labeled, moved and reassembled.

“As long as you keep track of all the parts it’s no more difficult than a giant puzzle.”

Some of the other old buildings were not so easy to deconstruct and major Kiruna structures like the City Hall will be demolished, and a different one built in new Kiruna.

In the case of City Hall White Arkitekter found a compromise: the giant tower clock, in the middle of the current building, will stand alone in the new city centre.

Residential streets in new Kiruna are all close to nature and old buildings will be mixed in with the new.

Some original houses from Kiruna will be relocated and mixed in with the new residential areas.

The idea is to punctuate the new city, which offers exciting possibilities for more modern development, with nods to the old and the things done right. But the melding of past and present comes with a hefty price tag.

Stenqvist won’t speculate on the total cost, but previous reports have indicated LKAB has pledged 3,74 billion Swedish kronor to the project. The municipality and a few private partnerships will foot the rest of the bill.

Despite the cost, not to mention the effort of the move, relocation may be something many cities face in the future.

“We know due to climate change and because of the rise of the sea level and the extreme weather in the world more and more cities will have to consider this as an option,” Stenqvist says.

Kiruna could be a model for the next generation of architectural and engineering feats. The lessons learned here, Stenqvist remarks, may serve as a blueprint for future urban planning.

“There is a huge interest in the world looking at this.”