Kiruna is a mining town located just inside of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. It serves the largest underground iron ore mine in the world, with a depth of some 1,365m and a vast network of subterranean roads and tunnels. The mining company LKAB, which was founded in 1890 and fully nationalised in the 1950s, has run the mine on an industrial scale for over a century. If anyone had had the foresight that in a hundred years’ time the mine would still be going, they wouldn’t have built the town so close to it.
In 2004, LKAB presented forecasts of how the subsidence caused by the mining would eventually threaten the centre of Kiruna and so in 2010 Kiruna’s municipal council announced plans for a huge and decades-long moving project, which is being overseen by the Swedish practice White Arkitekter. Certain historic houses in Kiruna were to be lifted intact and moved, with others bound for demolition. LKAB would pay residents 125 per cent of market rate for properties marked for demolition, or offer similar housing at a nearby location. The end aim is to move the entire town of Kiruna 3km to the east.
The announcement got a fair amount of coverage in the international press. When I found out about it, I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. In my practice, I tend to work on long-term projects that often use the passage of time to show change, so I thought it would be interesting to create an ongoing documentation, with pictures of Kiruna pre-move, during the move, and post-move. I have visited five times so far: in April and August 2013, in May 2015 and in June and August 2017. From the start, I took GPS coordinates of all the camera locations, so I’ve been able to go back and replicate exact positions. In many instances, the buildings have been moved, but the trees have been left in place.
What you immediately realise when you visit Kiruna is the codependency of the town and the mine – they are entirely symbiotic. In fact, the entire economic development of the region depends on the mine. It’s difficult to comprehend just how big the operation is, but if you imagine the 12m-long shipping containers you see trailing behind big trucks on the motorway – there are around 70 of those leaving the mine every day with a full load of refined iron ore pellets. The mine’s economic importance is such that closing it is absolutely out of the question, but it’s obviously not acceptable for the town to fall into a sinkhole either. It’s a problem everyone has been interested in solving. Kiruna is actually quite an old town. There are wooden houses and a wooden church from the turn of the previous century. And there’s history embedded in the buildings; the church was donated by LKAB to the local parish in 1912, for instance. A selection of the historic structures are being moved, but what’s difficult – and this relates to what is happening in London and other cities around the world – is that some of the brutalist architecture from the 1960s is being demolished. What a project like this brings about is a stark curation of history. Of course, you can have a photographic archive of what’s lost, but it’s not the same as having the building. And even with the buildings that are moved, the transition – the dislocation – means the historic structures that are saved will read differently nontheless. If you walk around a big city, you use landmarks to navigate. In New York, for instance, it used to be the Twin Towers, and in Kiruna you have this huge slag heap – a mountain really – of soil that’s been dug out of the mine. It sits there like a monument to what is currently happening and what has happened in Kiruna. Some would say it’s a scarred landscape. I don’t really mind it though – I think it looks interesting.
Klaus Thymann, based on an original interview by Kristina Rapacki.