The Cost of Iron

Mapping the ongoing “relocation” of the city, Kiruna Forever at Arkdes in Stockholm shows how the city and the mining corporation LKAB form an integrated social and technological system.

An Ecological Arctic Town, 1958 Architect: Ralph Erskine Illustration: Lars Harald Westman.

Architectural exhibitions are sometimes mere technical displays, but Kiruna Forever at Arkdes in Stockholm shows that contemporary architecture’s advanced instruments for analysis, mapping, and modelling can be employed beyond their traditional pragmatic applications. Today, architecture can also be the name of a critical investigative practice that uses the discipline’s powerful representational techniques as tools for understanding societies as complex aesthetic systems – where aesthetics is taken in a wide sense, as the configuration of sensible worlds.

Which is not to say that Kiruna Forever consists only of data visualisations and digital cartographies. Assembled in the old military exercise facilities on the island Skeppsholmen, are also older architectural models, drawings, and documentation of Kiruna’s built environment, as well as a number of historical and contemporary artworks that in different ways address the transformation of the region’s physical, social, and cultural landscape.

The subject of the exhibition, the ongoing ‘relocation’ of Kiruna, a mining city in the far north of Sweden, is of course conveniently spectacular. But Kiruna Forever does not indulge in dramatic images of sinkholes and buildings on the move; a relatively limited number of the contributions directly address the demolitions and the relocations. The exhibition, curated by Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, instead approaches the transfer as an architectural mega-event, a kind of macro-index that registers how an array of economic, geological, and political forces affect the city as social and phenomenological reality, while in turn the city’s violent reconfiguration renders these general forces legible in a concrete way as processes with tangible effects.

This macroscopic approach is most evident in the contributions that stay close to the idea of architecture as a sort of critical spatial analysis. Iwan Baan, Anne Dessing, and Michiel van Iersel’s The Global Kiruna (2020) locates the city’s mining industry in a global network of distribution flows and economic and geopolitical interests. In videos, posters, photographs, and texts, the work traces the paths of iron ore, as it travels from the tunnels beneath the Kiirunavaara mountain, across the railroads and power grids that make up what is called “Norrbotten’s technological megasystem,” connecting Kiruna with the Norwegian towns Narvik and Kirkenes, and onward to the routes of the international iron ore trade. The parts of the work that map the effects of the climate crisis on these distribution channels, namely the rapid melting of Arctic ice opening new pathways between Northern Europe and China – what an earlier generation of explorers and tradesmen called the “North-West Passage,” which was going to link Europe and Asia through the Arctic Ocean – are dizzying in their near total scope.

Visualisation of Kiruna’s new city centre.

Studio Folder’s Kiruna Forever: A Visual Exploration in Five Acts (2020) engages a similarly sublime register. The work consists of a kind of information film that is projected onto a vertical screen and a horizontally placed scale model of Kiruna, borrowed from the Kiruna City Hall. Texts and images on the vertical screen are illustrated by a dynamic cartographic display that highlights lines and zones on the large model, tracing satellite paths in the space above the city, reindeer migrations across the region, or architectural relocations in relation to the landscape’s geological fault lines, etc.

Moving from these cartographies of megasystems and global infrastructures, to Liselotte Wajstedt’s film Kiruna Ortdrivaren (2020) – which among other things documents a meeting in a Kiruna home where a group of elderly ladies sit and talk and laugh and complain about various things regarding the ongoing relocation: the ridiculous names of the new neighbourhoods; the beautiful buildings that are being torn down; the healthcare system, which was crap in the first place – creates a startling shift in perspective. A similar, albeit more drastic, shift of scale is dramatised in Hanna Ljungh’s I Am Mountain-Measure (2016), where the artist’s own body is transformed into a seismograph.

To speak of Kiruna’s ‘relocation’ is a euphemism, however. As Ulrika Stahre notes in her review of the exhibition in Aftonbladet, a more accurate description would be that one part of the city is being demolished and another is being constructed, at some distance from the former one and with a few symbolical buildings and structures brought along – in a way that raises questions about a city’s integrity as both a system and a social and cultural reality.

Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Sábmi with only Sámi place names, 1975. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt.

For example, where is the limit between the city of Kiruna and the state-owned mining corporation LKAB? The simple answer is, there is none. And not just because Kiruna has always been a mining town whose interests as a built and lived environment have consistently been subordinated to the demands of iron ore extraction – a fact more apparent than ever with the ‘relocation’. Studio Folder and Baan, Dessing, and van Iersel’s works also show us that the city up on the surface, the increasingly deep mines below, and the expanding distribution and communication networks, comprise one single, gigantic, integrated technological system, where the automated extraction machines down in the tunnels are governed by signals relayed from LKAB’s control stations and boardrooms, which are in turn relays in the vast infrastructure of global iron ore circulation – an interplay that, at the level of regional development, deforms mountain and city, buildings and roads, working conditions and everyday life.

Among other works in Kiruna Forever, Outi Pieski’s textile sculpture Ruossalas bálgát (Crossing Paths) (2014) stands out. Hanging one meter or so above the floor in the entrance to the exhibition space, the sculpture is at once light as a feather and spatially imposing. It consists of differently coloured threads in a loose cascading composition made using techniques from traditional Sámi clothing craftsmanship, and mounted onto an intricate wooden structure. Hovering above, it outlines the shape of a mountain range, giving it a spectral presence. It is one of a number of works and documents in the exhibition that evoke the Sápmi region (the Indigenous lands spanning Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia), locating today’s destructions and transformations of a physical, social, and cultural landscape in a deep history of colonisation and expropriation.

In the 1950s, the architect Ralph Erskine worked with an ambitious idea project for city planning in Norrbotten county, which included sketches and models for housing complexes and whole cities uniquely designed for the local topography and its climate. The astounding images, drawn in a fanciful, at once archaic and futuristic style, show vast architectural megastructures laid out like high-tech curtain walls around city cores teeming with colour. Only two elements of Erskine’s project were built:  the Ormen Långe (1965) housing complex in Svappavaara, a town south of Kiruna; and the aforementioned Ortdrivaren (1961) neighbourhood in Kiruna, both of which are now partly or completely demolished.

Kiruna’s old City Hall, 2018. Architect: Artur von Schmalensee. Photo:: Erik Lefvander.

Regardless of whether they were actually realisable, Erskine’s inventive, visually overwhelming sketches stand in sharp contrast to the contemporary projects and models for Kiruna’s new urban space that are also on display in the exhibition. Authored mainly by the architectural firms White Arkitekter and Ghilardi + Hellsten – which together won the competition for the design of the ‘relocated’ neighbourhoods, with a proposal called Kiruna 4-Ever – the digital sketches and illustrations of the new structures show cityscapes that could have been found in some development zone in Stockholm or Malmö. It is an architecture without vision, combining conservative classicising traits with a contemporary kind of architectural standardisation, the formal language of which appears to be imported directly from the digital design tools whose templates today increasingly govern the profession’s artistic possibilities and social ambitions.

Another sharp contrast is that between Kiruna’s old City Hall and the new one. At one end of the exhibition space in Arkdes, portions of the interior of Artur von Schmalensee’s well-known City Hall building, known as the “Igloo,” has been recreated: a speaking platform from the large assembly hall in the structure’s centre; elements of railings and inner walls; small decorating details and ornaments – some of which are authentic, borrowed from the recently demolished building. The reconstruction and the photographic documentation convincingly showcase the rare beauty and functionality of the “Igloo,” with its honesty regarding materials, its utilitarian clarity, and its confident elegance.

The documentation of exhibitions and political gatherings organised in the voluminous wide-open hall known as the public “living room” of Kiruna’s citizens also testify to the heritage that is now lost to the city’s inhabitants. The demolition of von Schmalensee’s “Igloo” is an architectural and political scandal, and the question is whether the new City Hall will ever be more than a monument to the local politicians’ inability or even unwillingness to preserve its predecessor.

Installation view from Kiruna Forever. Photo: Johan Dehlin.