Six large triangular bay windows protrude from the south facade of the building, granting passers-by a sight of the activities within. Perhaps more importantly, the wall of glass allows the low winter sun, when it does rise, to gently strike the back wall of the foyer, heating up the space. Some years from now, Kiruna's Folkets Hus and every other building around it, of which there are many, will be completely gone.
This is the only thought rolling through my mind as I meander through the room, delaying an inevitable confrontation with the cold. A large printed display covers one wall of the room, a map of the city, with different sections of the central area highlighted in different colours, accompanied by years ranging from 2020 to 2032. It's an overview of the different phases of the plan; the plan to move the entire city centre three kilometres eastward.
Kiruna, located 1957 kilometres north-northeast of our faculty in Delft, is home to the biggest underground iron ore mine in the world. The mining operation, nowadays run by state-owned company LKAB, has been extracting iron ore from the mine since 1898. Technological advancements have allowed LKAB to continuously scale up the operation, and they've consequently ventured deeper and deeper to empty the mine of its iron. Unfortunately, the body of iron ore is slanted such that it's deepest reaches lie underneath Kiruna's city centre. The operations of the mine, currently taking place at roughly 800 meters below ground level, have caused the ground above to destabilise and subside. To continue mining without endangering the city and its residents, the city centre will be moved three kilometres to the east. That is to say, a number of historically significant buildings will be moved while the majority of buildings, including the Folkets Hus, will be demolished.
Outside, the cold wind stings. It's the 23rd of March. The sky is clear, suggesting that the day may warm up as the sun comes. It doesn't. Accompanied by two friends I venture into the city to look around. In some places, the snow and ice that has built up on the ground over the course of winter has concealed the streets and sidewalks beneath, blurring them into one surface, equalising automobile and pedestrian. Due to the city's topography, characterised by a slight decline towards the mine to the southwest, the 'mountain' that houses the mine is nearly always visible as you walk around the centre. Its looming presence is a constant reminder of why the city exists in the first place; the mine and its iron. Though it used to be a mountain, its sides have by now been shaped unnaturally by waste rock, stacked in layers like a cake by the mining operation.
The awareness that everything around you is inextricably bound to be demolished as you walk through the streets of Kiruna begets an unusual feeling. You can see it on the buildings, which are slowly deteriorating under unremitting northern winters without maintenance. Paint stripping, little by little, from stuccoed walls, wooden façades, and window frames. The build-up of dirt where rain has come washing by on concrete walls. It makes sense, I start to realise; why should anyone; landlord, home-owner, or otherwise, be expected to paint their window frames or exterior walls when all is to be left behind and demolished anyways? It's exactly the level of maintenance by which you can tell you've crossed out of the bounds of the 'demolition zone', the buildings across this invisible but critical divide look like they're in a much better state, and the suburbia here is quite pleasant to walk through.
After a few stops on our cold walk through Kiruna, including one at the beautiful Kiruna church (which will be deconstructed and rebuilt in the new city) we end up back at the Folkets Hus. Previously unknown to us, a visitor experience in the mine has been organised for our group by the travel service that we're travelling with, and an LKAB bus is waiting for us. A thirty minute bus ride takes us into the depths of the mine, to about 300 meters below ground level. Here, LKAB has a visitor centre in a part of the mine that's no longer active.
It's difficult to appreciate the shear scale of the operation and the infrastructure necessary to facilitate it until you see it from up close. And it's clear that the company cares about their image, because the production value of the visitor centre seems to be quite high; there's a great tour guide that explains to us the ins and outs of the operation, there's a cinema room to play an informative video, there's a walk through the tunnels with unused machines that you can look inside, there's intricate models and displays that explain how the mine works, there's even a cafe where we're served tea and coffee with cookies. Every time we think we've reached the end of the tour, there's more. After several hours, we're brought back to the Folkets Hus, and I'm left in a state of awe. Awe at the size of the operation and it's intricacies. Awe at what humans are capable of. Awe at the efforts of LKAB to impress visitors and exhibit their importance.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the mining operation is that they do the explosive blasting necessary to remove the iron ore from the rock at night time, causing small earthquakes that can supposedly be felt in the city above. The reason for this is that at night there's the least amount of workers in the mine, putting less people's lives at risk. Interestingly, this makes the night shift one of the most wanted jobs, as the higher risk work is compensated with extra pay.
Though the move of Kiruna sounds like a grand plan that won't come to fruition until the distant future, that's really not the case, the plan is already underway. The heart of the new city centre; the new town hall and the square around it, have already been constructed. From there, new streets sprawl outwards, some already lined with new buildings, others still empty. A number of the buildings selected as historically significant have already been moved, in their entirety, to their new locations. Residents in the areas closest to the mine have begun moving to the new centre, and will continue to do so in the coming years. The last phase of 'emptying' the old city should be completed around 2032.
Of the 18000 total residents of the city, about 6000 have been asked to move; one third of the population. Owners of homes in the 'demolition zone' have been compensated by LKAB either with money (market price of their home plus 25%) or simply with a new home in the new city. What happens to those that don't want to move? LKAB will take them to court; it says so on their website, albeit in more gracious (and more convoluted) language. Though some residents have left Kiruna altogether instead of moving to the new city, most residents are complying. This is not surprising given that much of Kiruna's population works for LKAB or indirectly make their living through the mine and the tourists it attracts. Besides that, many years have passed since the initial decision to move was made in 2004, so there's been a lot of time to get used to the idea of moving. Because of this, it's talked about very casually, as something that must and will happen, which can be jarring as an outsider.
In the days following my visit to Kiruna, I felt torn. Torn between fascination for the mining operation, and shock at the idea that an entire city centre would be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere for it. Torn between incredulity about how okay Kiruna residents seems to be with moving, and empathy for their perspective on the situation. Torn between disgust at a masterplan that literally shows the current city wiped from the map, and curiosity for the new city that will be built. For better or for worse, Kiruna is moving, and only time will tell what the consequences will be.