kiruna: the swedish town that is relocating building by building

Apr 08, 2021

in 2013, plans were unveiled that would see a town in the far north of sweden relocated building by building. kiruna, home to the world’s largest iron ore mine, had become a victim of its own success. while it’s estimated that an equivalent of six eiffel towers worth of ore is extracted from the mine each day, consequential land deformation on the town’s western border had begun to subsume it, putting residents at risk. as a result, an international competition was launched to relocate kiruna in phases over a 20-year period. the winning entry, drawn up by white arkitekter working with ghilardi + hellsten, looked a century into the future to envision a sustainable city with a diverse economy.

‘the difficult part in moving a city is to preserve its sense of belonging, the history and the soul of the community,’ alexandra hagen, white arkitekter’s CEO, tells designboom. ‘it is easy to build a space or a building, but the real challenge is to preserve the thriving soul that makes a community.’ although two thirds of kiruna’s population depends on the mine for employment, the city has recently experienced population growth alongside an increase in tourism.

to develop the project, the architects involved kiruna’s 20,000 citizens — allowing them to take a prominent role in the masterplan. ‘our approach to put the citizens of kiruna first in this project is important,’ hagen continues. ‘we’ve spent a lot of time interviewing and listening to them. the city of kiruna exists because of the mine and the mining cannot continue if the city is not moved. the citizens of kiruna understand this but at the same time it’s still difficult for them as homes and spaces where memories have been made are being demolished to keep kiruna alive for the future.’

the new city’s first building is its town hall. designed by danish firm henning larsen, the structure draws physical inspiration from the angular geometry of the iron minerals that are fundamental to the town’s identity. fittingly, the design also incorporates the old town’s relocated bell tower, which stands as both a symbol of the past and a beacon for the future.

‘community identity often has real geographic roots,’ says henning larsen partner and design principal, louis becker. ‘we knew that during kiruna’s relocation, losing a sense of place could be a major challenge to the town’s residents. our hope is that this town hall is not only an effective seat for the local government, but a space that celebrates kiruna’s history and establishes an enduring symbol of local identity.’

the town hall and its adjacent public square will eventually be surrounded by a mix of other buildings currently under construction. these include a hotel, a bathhouse, and a culture center called ‘aurora’. from this urban center, new neighborhoods to accommodate the growing population will extend outwards into the surrounding arctic landscape in a radial fashion — ensuring that all residents have nature on their doorstep.

building by building, the town will ‘crawl’ east in stages | image © jessica nildén

many of the other buildings that will make up the new town, including approximately 3,000 homes as well as the kiruna church, will be relocated. depending on their condition and construction, some can be lifted onto the backs of trucks, while others have to be carefully demounted and reconstructed on the new site. building by building, the town will ‘crawl’ east in stages until the year 2035 when the old city center will be closed down.

the relocation masterplan was the subject of an exhibition at ArkDes, sweden’s national center for architecture and design. the exhibit examined the ongoing relocation through more than 100 works by architects, urban planners, and artists who have transformed the community and addressed the challenges facing the region. although the exhibit is currently closed, a virtual tour and more information is available here.