The mining town of Kiruna is not a normal place. For a start its 145km north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden and for another the mine that it was built to serve is thriving. It costs about four times more to mine iron ore beneath the Arctic Circle in Sweden that it would in an opencast mine in India or Brazil. However LKAB the mining company have been able to stay ahead of the game by treating the iron ore on site and mixing it with special compounds. The mine benefits from the expertise of the top mining engineers in the world who have been attracted to this town of 18,000. There is a very Swedish logic to the simple beautify of the place. As this article on Strange Harvest makes clear the mine and the town are also close in more negative, potentially destructive ways. Yet what the post doesn’t say is that one of the reasons for keeping Kiruna alive is because it is beautifully planned and constructed.
The first director of the mine Hjalmar Lundbohm bound the mine to the city. As mining began in 1898, this autodictat who had taken to the northern lands, observed the shanty town evolving in nearby Malmberget and the pioneering geologist, art-lover and philanthropist vowed to have a model settlement in Kiruna. Lundbohm is a legend in Kiruna. He wasn’t only chief of the mine he was a builder of the city too. The kind of leader that is as rare in corporate management today as it is local government.
He oversaw the introduction of a town plan by the revolutionary young architect Per-Olov Hallman. Eschewing the nineteenth century city grid, Hallman was influenced by the medieval town plan. To him, suiting a town to its landscape was more important than making it dense or easy to navigate. Kiruna was sited on the hillside opposite the mine with a good microclimate. The intimate squares connected by cosy vennels, precludes cold blasts of air. This is very important when ambient temperatures of -20 degrees centigrade can become much colder with the wind chill factor
Even the planners who are now arguing over the future shape of Kiruna agree that the city’s original plan was brilliant. It may not seem much walking around it, but if one considers what it could have looked like – a military grid plonked on the cold valley floor next to the mine – one can slowly begin to appreciate its subtlety and its charm.
Lundbohm ensured good conditions for his workers – they earned 3 times more than miners in the south of Sweden – but he also planted a humanistic way of thinking into the fabric of the city which has proved difficult to shake off. Friends with some of the best artists in the country during his dissolute youth, and so brought them to document its creation. The city hall is drenched in art, perhaps the most striking is a picture from 1903 called Kiirunavaara by Axel Sjöberg which shows the great hill in steely silhouette before it was so dramatically re-ordered by mining acitivity.
The nearby church – a stunning adaptation of traditional Sami housing – contains a beautiful altar frieze of the sun falling on a copse of trees. It was designed by Prince Eugen, the youngest son of King Oscar II of Sweden, who was recognised by his contemporaries as a painter of great skill. Using art and architecture Lundbohm turned Kiruna from a shanty town into a symbol of Swedish modernity and in doing so created somewhere that people wanted to live and where they still want to live. They have more societies per head of population than any other city in Sweden here.
Moving it is going to be fun.