White Arkitekter is slowly moving the sinking mining town Kiruna to a new location

In an interview with STIR, Krister Lindstedt, lead architect at White Arkitekter, describes the shifting of Swedish town Kiruna that is being threatened by an underground iron ore mine.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Jan 11, 2020

In one of the largest urban transformations of our time, the Arctic city of Kiruna has to move. Land deformation from iron ore extraction on the city’s western border will gradually subsume the centre. Shifting the city two miles east presents an unparalleled opportunity to transform Kiruna into a vibrant, low impact and economically diverse urban hub for current and future generations. But it’s a challenging task to move a city and not let its character and collective memory be affected.

In February 2013, White Arkitekter working in conjunction with Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter won an international competition for a 20-year master plan of Kiruna’s phased relocation by 2033. Challenging the original brief, White Arkitekter initiated a 100-year perspective on this master plan with an aim to create a sustainable model city with a diverse economy, which is less dependent on the global demand for iron ore.

  • Main square of Kiruna during summer, created with analysing anthropological data | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Main square of Kiruna during summer, created with analysing anthropological data Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • Kiruna's main square during winter | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Kiruna's main square during winter Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

The new square will house Kiruna’s historic clock tower and a new travel centre, facilitating connections between the old and the new. Krystallen, a new city hall designed by Henning Larsen Architects, is the first structure to occupy this space.

  • 3D vision of the edge of Kiruna town created to maintain its character | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    3D vision of the edge of Kiruna town created to maintain its character Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • Transportation designed as part of the square of the new town of Kiruna | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Transportation designed as part of the square of the new town of Kiruna Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

Here, STIR interviews Krister Lindstedt, the lead architect for Kiruna at White Arkitekter, who describes the huge process of town transformation.

Meghna Mehta (MM): How did the project initiate, what were the first steps?

Krister Lindstedt (KL): In 2013, the Kiruna municipality decided to invite 10 architectural teams to propose a vision, a master plan and the process tools for the relocation of the town. The process was given a 20-year horizon, including up to 3,000 residential units, public buildings, workplaces, the provision of public space and the shifting of key buildings. Six thousand people need to move, which makes up 33 per cent of the existing urban Kiruna. The mining company LKAB (Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag) reimburses for lost property up to 125 per cent but the incentive to move into the new town would have to be its attractiveness.

MM: What factors are being considered while relocating Kiruna?

KL: Where is one to start when moving a city? The community will move, but individuals can choose to move elsewhere. Apart from the necessity of it, what positive opportunities can come out of the move? What should Kiruna bring into the new town? Can Kiruna’s identity survive? What is Kiruna's identity? The work of our in-house social anthropologist Viktoria Walldin early spotted two key factors: the importance of meeting areas in the public realm and a close contact with nature. This consultation process needs to continue, though.

Places for meeting, eating, leisure and culture; these important spaces that form the basis of civic life were previously non-existent. - Viktoria Walldin, Social Anthropologist, White Arkitekter
  • Site Section of the new town of Kiruna | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Site Section of the new town of Kiruna Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • Drawing of the spine connecting the new town of Kiruna  | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Drawing of the spine connecting the new town of Kiruna Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: What are the various challenges being faced by White Arkitekter?

KL: Central to the plan for the new Kiruna is the idea that people need to be able to work together in a smart and concentrated settlement, not the least in the subarctic region. Since Kiruna’s location is far from other populated regions, it is wise to use its resources efficiently. This is achieved by reusing and recycling materials from the demolished structures of the old city centre.

The wind and cold in the wintertime call for a network of streets and buildings designed to limit the effects of the cold winds and create pleasant conditions to encourage public life. Huge amounts of snow need storage and ways of handling the melting-water. The low-lying sun calls for an equally low silhouette of buildings.

  • Development over the years as anticipated for a planned 100 year development and growth | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Development over the years as anticipated for a planned 100 year development and growth Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • Development as expected in 2100 | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Development as expected in 2100 Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: What was your initial design approach?

KL: We asked ourselves, apart from the necessity of the move, are there any positive opportunities that will cover for things lost, like the view over the mountains? That way the individuals would be engaged and would choose to move, and not feel like they were being forced to move.

We arrived at our first conclusion: we need to talk to the people. We learnt that people identify their town with its setting by the wilderness, where many spend their free time. The new town had to acknowledge this. We found out that there is great pride in the history of the town.

‘Kiruna 4-ever’, the motto of the winning proposal, aims for a diversified and liveable town, claiming identity from its no-nonsense-spirit, which is a recognised characteristic from people from the north of Sweden and its natural surroundings and its past.

How should we do it? We invented three process tools. The first one being ‘Kiruna dialogue’ - a continuous citizen dialogue that informs the process and adds quality to the design and gives the relocation a democratic platform. The ‘Kiruna Biennale’ invites people to bring experiences from other cities to Kiruna and gives the city a chance to learn form others. The ‘Kiruna Portal’ is a virtual and physical meeting place, and a storage space where the old city can be re-used and transformed into the new. Reuse is as much about the working of a cultural identity as using our resources wisely.

  • Park of the new development as visualised during the summer    | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Park of the new development as visualised during the summer Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • Snowy landscape as visualised during the winter | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Snowy landscape as visualised during the winter Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: Could you explain some of the salient features of the proposal.

KL: The new city is both mixed and compact. It will have high quality meeting places, offering people a platform for diversifying the economy - space industry and tourism, for example.

The new square and park make up for the most important meeting places in the town’s most central location. The railway station, the town hall and the culture house are placed right around the square and the most central blocks form the town centre with shops, workplaces and multi-storey housing. From the square a number of streets radiate and give access to it.

From the centre the city park and a number of green-white corridors stretch out to nature, giving access to recreational greenery. They also function as arenas for eco-system services, such as water management and vegetation management.

  • Visualisation of a shopping street by White Arkitekter in the summer | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    Visualisation of a shopping street by White Arkitekter in the summer Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • A shopping street during winter months | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    A shopping street during winter months Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: Did the design philosophy evolve over time?

KL: In general, the design philosophy has not changed over time. It is loyal to the original design proposal ‘Kiruna-4-ever’ – partly because of the transparent work we did before and how eager we were to involve all perspectives and citizens.

We were and are still mindful of the importance of a well-delivered first phase for the successful delivery of the following phases. And, as a last example, we have been able to propose a layout with all types of shopping located in one and the same destination, in the city centre, which opened the way for a more sustainable solution in all respects. Nobody foresaw this opportunity in the early phases, but we were able to rework our design when the possibility arose.

Kiruna park as visualised by White Arkitekter | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
Kiruna park as visualised by White Arkitekter Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: What are the significant features of this project that differentiate it from others?

KL: The project is to replace the town centre due to the land deformation, which is an existential threat to Kiruna.

The idea of urban re-use in a large scale is a significant feature. The new site is a large grey-field. Bringing buildings along, whole or in parts, bring character and identity to the new town and it is a way to manage resources wisely. Making use of an inventory of more fully-grown vegetation from the deformation zone speeds up the process to have a more mature and diverse greenery.

The most challenging part of the project is to replace the heart of the town while it is in use. And a new rudimentary town centre must be in place in time to allow the mining to continue. Kiruna has the opportunity to reinvent itself since it is building a new town. - Krister Lindstedt
Aerial view of the town of Kiruna as visualised for 2033 | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
Aerial view of the town of Kiruna as visualised for 2033 Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

MM: Are there any unique materials or construction methodologies employed here?

KL: The most unique aspect is, I think, that buildings are moved in their entirety as units. How often do you see that?

MM: This is a long-term project. What are your views on the expectations versus reality?

KL: As mentioned above, the project is going through constant revisions and developments. That said, I think it is vitally important to have high ambitions and aspirations through the entire spectrum when it comes to sustainability, liveability and attractiveness. By raising the bar rather than lowering it, it is possible to attract stakeholders, especially in Kiruna known within Sweden as being a model town.

  • One of the urban areas as visualised for the hot months | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    One of the urban areas as visualised for the hot months Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter
  • An urban area during cold season | Kiruna Masterplan | White Arkitekter | STIRworld
    An urban area during cold season Image Credit: Courtesy of White Arkitekter

Project Details

Name: Kiruna 4-ever
Location: Kiruna, Sweden
Area: 120 ha
Conception time: The competition was announced in 2012 and Kiruna 4-ever was chosen in 2013. The Master Plan and Vision (Utvecklingsplan) was adopted in 2014.
Time taken from conception to construction (expected): The move has a 20-year horizon, from 2013-2033.
Architects: White Arkitekter AB (Stockholm) and Ghilardi Hellsten arkitekter AS (Oslo) (two firms in cooperation)
Design team: White Arkitekter, Ghilardi+Hellsten Arkitekter
Principal architects: Krister Lindstedt (White), Erik Stenman (Ghilardi+Hellsten)
Architects: Anna Edblom, Ivar Suneson (White), Ellen Hellsten, Franco Ghilardi (Ghilardi+Hellsten)
Principal landscape architects: Jack Johnson (White), Sam Keshavarz (Outer Space)
Landscape architects: Sanna Eriksson, Peter Eklund (White)
Spatial analysis: Spacescape

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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