Likening the interior of a city hall – the ultimate monument to municipal democracy – to Piranesi’s sketches of imaginary prisons might not suggest a particularly felicitous encounter with it. But entering the section of the new Kiruna city hall that’s open to the public isn’t so different from trying to work out the spatial complexities of the Italian’s architectural visions.
Set atop and inside the building containing the government of Sweden’s northernmost city, located 145 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, is a host of seemingly haphazard gold cubes. Besides housing an art museum, they add some much-needed complexity to the geometrically simple structure, whose round shape is a fitting symbol for the equality so prized in Swedish politics (read: there are no corner offices for the mayor and other pooh-bahs). Its golden tone is intentional as well: According to its designers, Denmark-based Henning Larsen Architects, whose North Atlantic office simultaneously completed a town hall in the Faroe Islands, the dazzle emanating from the building signals that it isn’t just another random office complex.
And indeed it isn’t. Known locally as de Kristallen (the Crystal), it is the first building to be erected in the “new” Kiruna. Built in the early 20th century on one of the world’s biggest bodies of iron ore, the old city of Kiruna existed in symbiosis with the mine developed to extract that ore. As the mine expanded, it started to undermine and in some cases swallow up Kiruna’s foundations, prompting the city of 18,000 to uproot itself and move to a prescribed site three
Unfortunately, one of the buildings that won’t be hauled over is the much admired original city hall, designed in the 1960s by Artur von Schmalensee. Apart from some door handles, the only element that has been salvaged from it is sculptor Bror Marklund’s 26-metre-high bell tower, which has been moved to the grounds next to the Crystal. It is yet another beacon, but one that’s more familiar.
While Henning Larsen North Atlantic completed a new town hall in the Faroe Islands, the Copenhagen-based home office was fashioning one for Sweden’s northernmost city. The outcome is more than a civic building: It’s the optimistic emblem of an uprooted community