Copenhagen's Henning Larsen unveils the Crystal, a sparkling city hall for the northern Swedish mining town of Kiruna
Most people outside Sweden would be hard pressed to locate Kiruna. Even within Sweden, this industrial town in the far north of Lapland is best known for its association with LKAB, a hugely profitable state-owned mining company that bankrolls many of the country's projects. But that could be about to change, thanks to Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen. Kiruna may very well be where the Copenhagen-based company achieved a perfect symbiosis of form and function in its city hall, dubbed the Crystal. This gift to the town's 19,000 inhabitants opened last November in a ceremony presided over by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and mayor of Kiruna, Kristina Zakrisson.
"Kiruna has never been a tourist destination," acknowledges Henning Larsen partner and design principal Louis Becker, who joined the firm more than three decades ago and trained under its eponymous late founder. "People fly into this gateway town and proceed to the Ice Hotel or further onwards to ski at the border near Russia. We are helping to put Kiruna on the map as more than a gateway to the Arctic. And we saw this city hall as a way to tell Kiruna's unique story – its transformation from a frontier town to a mature city of stature."
The Crystal is the first building to be completed and is situated in the centre of the new town
Owing to subsidence caused by more than a century of mining iron ore from nearby Mount Kiruna, the town and its inhabitants are moving to a new location approximately three kilometres further east. A few local landmarks will also make the transition, says Peter Fredriksson, project manager with Kiruna Municipality. "Some 10 percent of the original town, including our church and the city hall's former clock tower, will be relocated and preserved as antiques. The rest will be new construction. The Crystal is the first building to be completed and is situated in the centre of the new town [with the clock tower just outside the main entrance]. It forms our cultural centre. A cinema, library, concert hall, shops and restaurants will soon follow. The residences and commercial buildings will radiate outwards from the town centre in structures of up to seven storeys high," he says.
The plan started about seven years ago, explains the town's deputy mayor Stefan Sydberg. "We began discussions with residents – where they wanted to move to, how they saw their city, and how they want their city to be seen by the world. People voted for a dense city centre and more compact living, with merchants on the ground level, apartments above, and nature nearby. The city hall, being closest to the iron ore mine, had to move first. Previously, Kiruna had no art museum. However [thanks to LKAB's first CEO Gustaf Broms and its first managing director Hjalmar Lundbohm], the municipality owned a lot of art that should be housed in a safe environment. We chose Henning Larsen to design our city hall because we loved their concept of a living room for both our civic services and our art collection," Sydberg says.
Both architecturally and functionally, the Crystal resembles a precious gemstone cluster ring. The outer band, finished with gold-coloured aluminium foil, is a perfect circle and is where the majority of the city hall's offices, meeting rooms and supporting services are located. An internal stack of irregular-shaped boxes are the precious gems: the council assembly hall, where municipal issues are heard and debated; a cosy room where marriage licences are granted; and a variety of exhibition spaces for art shows and installations. At the core of the ring lies the diamond, a large atrium that serves as a foyer for receptions, a banquet hall for gala dinners, and Kiruna's de facto living room.
"During the design competition, it seemed the art museum was to be a separate entity from the city hall, and its contents had to be protected," says Peer Teglgaard Jeppesen, partner and design director with Henning Larsen. "Why not let the city hall itself protect the museum? That led to our development of the square in the circle concept. And we chose the colour gold as a finish on many surfaces, walls and balustrades to reference mining and metals.
"We designed a vertical museum with different volumes and spaces for site-specific installations – it is definitely not a white cube. The city hall staff has its own entrance and facilities, which are separate from the public ones. Yet a portion of the gallery, on the fifth floor, has a view into the staff canteen. We wanted to secure both the city hall and the art museum, yet allow them to be visible both to each other and nature beyond."
There was also an effort to create "small cracks", Becker explains. "Spaces that were not square rooms, places for people to discover and explore, leftover spaces created by the meeting of circle and square. These half-moon-shaped areas allow children to be part of the museum, where they have their own place to play," he says.
"Of course, it was a huge challenge to design the enormous truss that the building hangs upon. And it was a struggle to ensure that the exterior was constructed as truly round instead of faceted. But it was all worthwhile when I saw people who use the Crystal daily begin to take ownership. I know that they will always protect it.
Photos: Hufton + Crow/Peter Rosén. Other images courtesy of © Henning Larsen