A sturdy reindeer stands in the foreground of architect Ralph Erskine’s 1958 conceptual drawing, “An Ecological Arctic Town,” its head bowed toward a cozy, colorful settlement ringed by a circular megastructure topped with windmills and solar panels. The town opens to the sunny south and walls itself off from the harsh north. The rest of the reindeer herd streams over the snow-covered hills at a safe distance from the well-traveled road that serves the town. With his seductive proposal, Erskine, a British-born architect who spent much of his career in Sweden, envisioned a city that would harmoniously reconcile a series of apparent opposites. “Town-Wilderness. Indoor-Outdoor. Social Contact-Privacy. Artificial-Natural,” he wrote in the lower right corner, adding a list of desirable environmental attributes, such as protection from blizzards, and a kind of motto: “Live with Nature but Improve it, Not Cover and Exclude it.” Though it was never built, Erskine’s climate-specific urban design template puts to shame many 21st-century pretensions of “innovation” when it comes to ecological urbanism. 1
As for those fabulous reindeer: are they more than stage decoration? Do they indicate a true respect for the city’s far northern milieu, or do they merely signal the architect’s desire to be seen as environmentally correct? Where are the animals’ likely herders — the Indigenous Sámi people, whose language has about 300 words for snow, and whose ancestral lands, diminished by modern development and border control, span the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and western Russia? 2 There is a pernicious history of Sámi erasure from Swedish history and landscape imagery, and the myth of “wilderness,” which Erskine’s drawing perpetuates, helped sanction colonization and displacement. 3 The Arctic city at one with its environment should ideally accommodate the traditional ecological knowledge of Sámi communities that have practiced a climate-friendly way of life for centuries, and whose ancestors, by the way, fashioned the world’s oldest known pair of skis about 5,000 years ago. 4
Kiruna is being relocated to accommodate the expansion of the century-old iron mine that sustains the town economically but literally undermines it.
Erskine’s illustrations are among the many fascinating works that invite fresh critical review in the exhibition Kiruna Forever, which recently opened at ArkDes, Sweden’s national museum of architecture and design. The exhibition gathers an impressively diverse range of views and voices on Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. Kiruna is in the midst of a decades-long “relocation” to accommodate the expansion of the adjacent iron mine — one of the largest and purest in the world — that sustains the town economically but literally undermines it, causing the ground to sink and crack. About one-third of Kiruna’s 20,000 or so inhabitants must now move. Most buildings that lie within the mine’s “deformation zone,” or area of subsidence above the shafts, are simply being demolished. A couple of miles to the east, a new city center and new residential neighborhoods — developed by the state-owned mining company Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) and the municipal government, aided by prominent architects and planners — are gradually taking shape. Property owners within the condemned area must either sell their land to the company at the assessed value plus a 25-percent premium, or “trade in” their buildings for newly developed ones. To the delight of international audiences, a number of individual structures, including an apartment building, a Modernist clocktower, and an iconic wood church, have been or will be lifted off their foundations and towed to new sites on stable ground.
Industrial development and tourism sped the pace of forced and peaceful assimilation of the Sámi.
Kiruna was founded in 1900 as a model industrial town, endowed with social and cultural amenities, its streets configured by planners Per Olof Hallman and Gustaf Wickman to take advantage of the southwestern slope and shelter residents from the northern winds. 5 By 1910 its population was 8,000, the same year in which the first of fifteen hydropower plants was built along the nearby Lule River, and the year in which the first text ever written in the Sámi language (other than the bible and religious tracts), Turi’s Book of Lapland, by Sámi author Johan Turi, was published in Danish, gaining international attention. 6 The pressures of industrial development and tourism sped the pace of forced and peaceful assimilation of the Sámi during these and subsequent decades. 7 When LKAB switched from open-pit to underground mining in the early 1960s, tunneling beneath the city to extract the valuable magnetite deposit, it was only a matter of time before the ground would start to give way. A new civic center was developed in the 1960s, but ground subsidence was recorded by the 1970s, and in 2004 LKAB announced that the city would gradually have to move. 8 Some observers see a kind of gloomy historical reprise: “We shall never forget that the mine, at its beginning, forced two Sámi villages off their grazing land,” Ann-Helén Laestadius, a Swedish-Sámi journalist who grew up in Kiruna, writes in Kiruna Forever, the book accompanying the exhibition. “Now it’s the turn of the Kiruna people to leave their homes.” 9
Sensible planning conceals the environmental recklessness of the extractive industry that is at once Kiruna’s reason for existence and the cause of its partial self-destruction.
By most accounts Kiruna residents have reacted to the forced move with a mix of stoicism, enthusiasm, and melancholy, but a sociologist who studied how Kirunians construe meaning in their industrially marked company town believes they have a “dysfunctional emotional relationship to the town.” 10 Here, as in the smaller, nearby mining town of Malmberget, which is also being evacuated by LKAB, but with less fanfare, Masha Taavoniku writes, “Instability is a part of everything. It echoes in the conversations. It is one with the anger, hope, even, and especially, the ground itself.” 11 What sets Kiruna apart is the seemingly methodical, precisely engineered nature of the relocation, a mirror for the town’s history as a progressive planning model. Sensible master planning conceals the environmental recklessness of the large-scale extractive industry that is at once Kiruna’s reason for existence and the cause of its partial self-destruction. As a major revenue generator for the Swedish state, the LKAB mine at Kiruna helps sustain social welfare programs such as universal healthcare; exploitation of the iron ore, then, continues in the national public interest. But this public interest contradicts the stated wishes of Sweden’s 20,000 or so citizens of Sámi descent (out of a total national population of 10 million), who, though fairly integrated in contemporary Kiruna, have called for a moratorium on mineral exploitation in their traditional lands. 12 Environmental degradation takes different forms: at night there are explosive booms from detonations underground, but the greatest danger may be the silent advance of climate change that is already ravaging Arctic ecosystems and livelihoods.
Kiruna is moving at a time in which Sweden and the planet’s northern regions face fundamental change.
Kiruna Forever, curated by Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, is premised on the idea that Kiruna’s urban transformation is not just a gigantic architectural project but also a symbolic test for a society at the crossroads. “Kiruna is not only being relocated three kilometers. It is moving at a time in which Sweden and the planet’s northern regions face fundamental change,” Mínguez Carrasco writes. “Planned until 2100, the current relocation … embodies the dreams and aspirations of contemporary Sweden.” 13 In this light Kiruna offers a window into a confluence of geological, ecological, technological, economic, cultural, and political forces across time and space. Although the city receives periodic bursts of outside attention, typically due to the telegenic effort of transporting large structures, “For many Kirunians it has been frustrating to witness this preference for spectacle over a serious understanding of the region’s needs,” Mínguez Carrasco writes. “This exhibition hopes to correct that bias and present a fuller picture of the region’s difficulties and hopes.” 14
Kiruna Forever is dense, layered, and messy in a good way. Mínguez Carrasco and his colleagues not only dug into the archives of ArkDes to show drawings by Erskine and other architects; they reached beyond the discipline to include works by artists and designers, including Sámi creators, and commissioned a series of projects jointly with Norrbotten County Art Museum in Kiruna, where duplicates are being exhibited simultaneously. Kiruna Forever introduces visitors to superhuman systems and forces while also taking care to balance its grand analytical gestures with human-scale narratives and artifacts, such as emotional video interviews with residents and full-scale reconstructions of the most important building lost in the relocation process, the former city hall, a generous space once affectionately known as the city’s “living room.”
I wanted to review the exhibition with an eye toward not only its representations of place but also the possibilities and limits of remote engagement.
I have never been to Kiruna, nor was I able to travel from my home in New York City to visit the exhibition in Stockholm. In this sad distinction I resemble the Swedish artist Karl Nordström, who in 1900 painted a panoramic landscape of Kiruna, a place he had never been, for exhibition at the LKAB display at the Paris World’s Fair. 15 His commission was to glorify the mining company and portray its extractive activities as belonging naturally to the landscape; I am writing independently, but even so I am wary of reproducing tropes that may exoticize, objectify, patronize, or otherwise distort and disrespect the communities that call Kiruna home. So what has given me the temerity to write about a place and an exhibition of which I have no first-hand experience? To a large degree it was the recognition that this limitation is inherent to the genre; exhibitions about architecture, cities, and landscapes are forever constrained by their lack of direct access to the subject matter under review. They inevitably traffic in representation, simulation, and evocation. When cultural institutions around the world closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of them invited their viewers to explore online content and platforms in lieu of a physical visit. Indeed digital platforms and programming were already on the rise, and institutions are likely to continue enhancing their online portals after the pandemic is over. I wanted to review Kiruna Forever with an eye toward not only its multi-dimensional representations of place but also the possibilities and limits of remote engagement.
Physical distance did not prevent me from reading Kiruna Forever, the hefty catalogue that accompanies the exhibition and features provocative essays and reflections from sixteen contributors. And a few days before the pandemic-delayed opening of Kiruna Forever in Stockholm, Mínguez Carrasco spent an hour guiding me through the nearly-visitor-ready gallery via FaceTime. This was superior to the 360-degree vernissage presented as part of Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival. I had last seen Mínguez Carrasco in New York, when he was associate curator of the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Now I was in Vermont, in privileged isolation, displaced from my urban home, thinking about the contingencies of place and belonging, questioning the workings of urban memory and urban design, if only as a respite from the numbing daily routines of lockdown. It occurred to me that Mínguez Carrasco, like me, was an outsider to Kiruna. Educated as an architect in Spain and the Netherlands, he organized the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale with the After Belonging Agency, during the course of which he became interested in Kiruna. When he assumed his current role at ArkDes, in 2017, he circled back to the story of the Arctic city and its so-called relocation. “Once you start looking at it, you cannot stop,” Mínguez Carrasco told me. “We want the exhibition to give a deeper understanding, to bring all the positions together, and to raise questions.” The questions range from the technical — how does iron from Kiruna end up in a tower in Dubai? — to the personal — how does it feel to lose your city? — to the philosophical — when is a building worth saving? — and the political — who controls Kiruna, and how might its development be imagined otherwise?
For how long will Kiruna exist? For now, as the city borrows ground, it borrows time, too.
The title “Kiruna Forever” suggests a place out of time, yet Kiruna is anything but timeless. As the exhibition and catalogue vividly show, the city has changed constantly. Kiruna is not forever; it is forever shifting. The title is in fact knowingly sentimental, derived from the title of the 2012 competition-winning entry for the master plan for the new Kiruna, “Kiruna 4-ever,” a joint proposal by the Swedish firm White Arkitekter and Oslo-based Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter. “The friendly and optimistic title is genius,” Mínguez Carrasco writes in his introductory essay, while noting that the reality is more complex and sobering: “Time is elastic in Kiruna,” measured alternately by geological formations, indigenous ancestry, urban development, the ongoing relocation effort, and beyond that, an uncertain future. “For how long will Kiruna exist? … For those committed to the city, ‘forever’ is a right of citizens and a responsibility for leaders.” The life of a city is longer than the life of a person, but sooner or later Kiruna, like all cities, will come to rest, to borrow a phrase from Cervantes, “in the bowels of eternal oblivion.” 16 For now, as it borrows ground, it borrows time, too. Kiruna Forever intercepts the city during its metamorphosis, excavating but not extracting its hidden trove of architectural and cultural resources.
Upon entering the large gallery in which Kiruna Forever is installed at ArkDes, before reaching the introductory text panel, visitors walk beneath a shaggy forest of threads dangling from a delicate wood branching structure. This is Outi Pieski’s Crossing Paths, a work that incorporates traditional Sámi shawl-weaving techniques and materials. More field than object, changing with the viewer’s position, it evokes a relationship to the land quite unlike the tacitly violent one evinced by the carefully delineated geological surveys related to metal extraction at Kiirunavaara, the oldest of which dates to 1736. Crossing Paths also serves as a kind of land acknowledgement: Kiruna is in Sámi territory. It is one of several works in the show that operates through architecture’s native language, spatial experience at the human scale. As such, it does not fully translate to digital media, and I can only try to imagine its effects in-the-flesh.
Crossing Paths serves as a land acknowledgement: Kiruna is in Sámi territory.
Along with Crossing Paths, several other large-scale, three-dimensional installations anchor the 6,500-square-foot exhibition of more than 100 works. One is Studio Folder’s projection-mapped overlay upon a 1962 scale model of Kiruna, which visualizes the transformation of the city since 2004. Projected light flashes across the physical model in synchrony with drone footage shot from above the city, illustrating changes in urban development patterns, ground deformation, reindeer migration routes, the price of iron on the global market, and the effects of climate change on Arctic shipping routes. There is currently no satisfactory way to experience this work virtually, but that is likely a sign of its in-person dynamism. Another key work, Global Kiruna, tracks the journey of iron ore, via trains and ships and factories, from the depths of the LKAB mine to places like the London Tube, the Burj Khalifa, and undersea data cables in the Gulf of Mexico. Mínguez Carrasco convinced one of the world’s foremost architectural photographers, Iwan Baan, to focus his lens on Kiruna’s industrial infrastructure, from 3,000-foot-deep tunnels to the machine-eaten mountain of Kiirunavaara. Here Kiruna emerges as a crucial node in “the technological megasystem of Sweden’s north,” a web of interlinked mining, transportation, and hydropower installations dating from the early 20th century. 17 Lapland is no wilderness, even though tourists come to admire the vast tundra (a Sámi word) and the Aurora Borealis.
The reconstruction of portions of the former city hall stands as a polemic against the sacrifice of good public architecture to the gods of the global commodity market.
What grounds these and other analytical mapping projects in human-scale reality are works like Emil Myrsell’s filmed interviews with Kiruna residents. We tag along as they walk or drive through their changing city, or sit in the quiet of their kitchens and living rooms. They laugh, they weep, they recall old memories, they express resignation. Then there is the full-scale reconstruction of portions of the former city hall, a significant curatorial achievement that stands as a polemic against the sacrifice of good public architecture to the gods of the global commodity market. The building, designed by Artur von Schmalensee and opened in 1963, was a profoundly humanistic achievement. Its exposed concrete frame, fitted with screens of handmade brick, wood, and glass, opened into a central atrium lit from clerestories and ringed by balconies. This central space hosted exhibitions, parties, events, and rallies. As recalled in a new audiovisual installation by artist Ingela Johansson, some of the largest meetings of the historically significant Swedish miners’ strike of 1969–70 occurred at the Kiruna City Hall. In 2001 the building was designated a local historic landmark; the municipality later maneuvered to revoke this designation, and, despite a study indicating the feasibility of dismantling and reconstructing certain parts of the building, the structure was demolished in 2019. The original wood-and-horn door handles, crafted by Sámi artist Essaias Poggats, are now installed on the new city hall, designed by Henning Larsen and opened in 2018. Parts of the old city hall were salvaged, and Mínguez Carrasco, working with the municipality, arranged for the installation of some of the original wood balcony screens, decorative concrete ceiling panels, textiles, lamps, benches, and even the lectern used to address large assemblies. This fleeting reincarnation in the gallery, punctuated by photographs of the building before and during its demolition, forms a powerful homage that simultaneously impugns the social priorities that led to the building’s destruction.
“Outstanding architecture was built in Kiruna throughout the 20th century,” Mínguez Carrasco writes. “Nothing was banal or merely functional, every building had architectural quality, and all were designed with the ambition to be important and admired.” 18 The urbanity of this modern architectural legacy is somewhat at odds with how locals describe the typical kirunabo, or iconic [coded male, working-class] Kiruna resident: oriented toward the countryside and outdoor activities like snowmobiling, fishing, hunting, and skiing, while jokingly referring to the town as a “work camp.” 19 Kirunians speak proudly of the history of Kiruna as a planned town developed by the benevolent vision of LKAB director Hjalmar Lundbohm; but when asked to describe their favorite part of the city, many dodged the question by pointing to distant views. “When you look out at the mountain landscape,” a young man said, “It is rather nice. Then there is the town … I don’t know if there are any really nice areas.” 20 The tallest buildings in Ralph Erskine’s Ortdrivaren residential quarter near Kiruna’s former center, though highly regarded by architects, were reportedly deemed “ugly” by residents, and derided as the “snuff box” and “spittoon.” 21 Yet Kiruna’s architecture holds emotional significance, as Ann-Helén Laestadius laments: “You cannot quite convince me, you who say that the soul of a town resides with its people. If great parts of the city are gone then perhaps its soul must be partly gone with it.” 22
Kiruna Forever belongs to a long and controversial sequence of representations of the Swedish north, but it deserves praise for highlighting Kiruna’s contradictions rather than smoothing them over. It juxtaposes the confidence of master planning with the shakiness of people’s reactions. It shows the wildly fluctuating price of iron ore alongside the mine’s unwavering operations. It questions the justice and wisdom of the city’s establishment while reaffirming the way residents attach meaning to place. When Kiruna looks in the mirror, what does it see? Kiruna Forever asks viewers not simply to accept one or another image of the place, but instead to recognize the instrumentalizing nature of most such images, and to peer into the historical, architectural, cultural, and political machinery of image-making and place-making. In its focus on globally networked hinterlands, the exhibition shares thematic territory with Rem Koolhaas and AMO’s Countryside, The Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; but Kiruna Forever, though smaller, is more powerful because it is more specific about place, more ambivalent toward technology, and more inclusive of local voices.
As Mínguez Carrasco concludes, “Kiruna confronts us with the need to totally redefine our values, when it comes to how we address global warming and reinterpret the notion of attachment in a world of forced and non-forced migration.” 23 In this sense the show contains a latent design challenge, and a hidden optimism: a call to reimagine the possibilities for places that appear fixed and circumscribed. Ralph Erskine was right to question the limits of the status quo, even if his half-century-old vision for people-friendly, climate-responsive rural development now appears impossibly dated. So are the Indigenous rights advocates who, like the technology historian May-Britt Öhman, in an essay in Kiruna Forever, strip away the pretense of false neutrality to pose the challenges of environmental design in political and personal terms:
Who are you in all of this? What is your history, who are your foremothers and forefathers? What is your future? Which body of water are you? Which languages do you belong to? What would it look like if instead of the destructive Swedish-Western approach to nature and our fellow humans, we were instead guided by the relationship-based Sámi way of looking at things? 24
The relocation underscores not the omnipotence of design and technology, but rather the contingency that lurks behind the surest plans.
Cultural politics in Sweden are shifting, as surely as the climate is changing and the city of Kiruna slogs eastward. In January 2020, in a groundbreaking decision for Sweden’s Indigenous people, the nation’s highest court granted hunting and fishing rights to a Sámi village on land the state had previously appropriated. In June, the Swedish government granted the Sámi Parliament’s request to fund a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the history of injustice against Indigenous people by the Swedish state. Kiruna will continue changing, and perhaps one day it will move to mend its pathological relationship with nature. For now, its relocation serves as proof not of the omnipotence of design and technology, but rather of the contingency that lurks behind the surest plans. Kiruna’s displaced residents have something in common with groups around the world who must leave their homes, a situation that is occurring with increasing frequency. Kiruna — and the culturally resurgent Sámi — may ultimately offer lessons for other communities on the move.