Kiruna Town Hall Square is the initial public space to be constructed in the new center of Kiruna (Sweden) — ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle and site of the world’s largest underground iron ore mine. Ground subsistence associated with the mine requires that the city relocate almost 2 miles east of its current location. The existing town hall’s bell tower is relocated and surrounded by groves of birches to anchor the new town square.
Landscape Architect’s Role
The Swedish national government announced plans for a competition for the new Kiruna Town Hall and Square following the adoption in 2010 of a new town plan precipitated by the subsistence of
the existing town into the Kirunavaara mine, the world’s largest underground iron ore mine. The landscape architect was on a team comprised of a Swedish architect and a Norwegian architect — both with extensive experience in public buildings and extreme subarctic environments — selected as one of three finalists (out of over sixty teams) for the new City Hall and Square. An advanced building systems engineer was the fourth team member. The landscape architect contributed to the siting and massing of the new town hall and led the design of Kiruna Town Hall Square.
Kiruna New Town
The master plan (by others) for the new town relocates Kiruna approximately three kilometers (almost 2 miles) East of its current situation. Among the first acts of relocating the town is the design and construction of the new town hall and square as the existing town hall is precipitously close to the current extent of the ground subsistence. The new town plan establishes a linear west to east configuration that connects the mine with the airport as it passes through or adjacent to key areas of the new city, including the new Kiruna Town Hall and Square. (see diagram, slide 5)
The subarctic climate of Kiruna (population 20,000) poses unique design challenges. Kiruna is the northernmost city in Sweden and is located 145 kilometers (90 miles) north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. Winter is characterized by 24 hours of darkness for about a month between early December and early January. Summers are characterized by 24 hours of daylight between the end of May and mid-July. Winter is moderately snowy with a glistening white mantle that lays across the landscape and city between late September and mid-May. Kiruna Town Hall Square exploits these climatic conditions as a public space for a hardy winter tolerant population. Two areas of shallow excavations establish winter snow management areas while also serving as highly programmed summer areas.
The “snow amphitheater,” on the southeast corner of the Kiruna Town Hall Square, is a shallow area comprised of cubic masses. The cubic masses are established as an extension of the three dimensional grid established by the geometry of the bell tower, which is the only part of the existing town hall relocated to the new town hall – where it serves to anchor the new square. As the snow covers the square, it will eventually bring this shallow amphitheater to grade level and, for much of the winter, pedestrians can simply walk across the packed snow that has filled the amphitheater based on normal winter snowfall data. Extreme snow events will result in a large pile of snow with topography suitable for climbing and play. In the summer, the amphitheater is a gathering place for performances, play, and other activities.
Sunken Birch Grove
West of the new city hall is a triangular grove of birches planted in a sunken, shallow, undulating topography. In the winter, the Birch Grove serves as a snow management area but in the summer, a pair of footbridges traverses a lowered ground fecund with herbaceous subarctic flowers, mosses, and ferns. The footbridge access protects the excavated area from human traffic so it will mature into a lush, verdant grove.
Relocated Bell Tower Establishes Cultural Continuity Previous studies determined that dismantling and reconstructing the existing town hall was not feasible, hence, the competition for a new town hall, or staadshus. However, the existing iron, steel, and bronze bell tower is relatively easy to dismantle and relocate so our team decided to propose reconstruction of the bell tower in the new town square so that its height precisely corresponds with its current height above the ground. For us, this act of rebuilding the bell tower consecrates the new Town of Kiruna. We then extended a three-dimensional grid based on the 4.8 meter (15.75 foot) gridded geometry of the bell tower to structure the 5,400 square meter (1.3 acre) plaza, snow amphitheater, and sunken birch grove so that the geometry of the bell tower establishes the new spatial order of the town square. Similarly, the architects used this same three-dimensional grid to investigate and derive cubic masses and voids for the new town hall.
Kiruna Town Hall and Square
The landscape architect and architects worked closely to design a new center for Kiruna that transported cultural meaning from the old town hall within the context of extreme climatic constraints and public activities. A rigorous grid based on the relocated bell tower brought spatial memory to the new site while groves of birches in the plaza and gathering places for people in both the new town hall and in the plaza bring dynamic processes and vitality to enliven this ordered grid. As the bells from the historic bell tower peal, the citizens of Kiruna will gather under the endless night of winter to gaze at the aurora borealis.
In the town hall, a generously-scaled enclosed ground floor hall/ lobby serves as a protected winter plaza and works in concert with the town hall square as a series of connected public volumes and spaces. A “forest” of skylights on the town hall gathers the spectacular northern light that similarly filters through the diaphanous canopy of the birches and slips through the wiry frame of the historic bell tower to accentuate the most compelling landscape of Kiruna — the sky.