Designing An Icehotel

Posted on Jun 18 2007

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Every November, teams of international artists are brought to the village of Jukkasjarvi in Swedish Lapland to build a hotel from ice and snow. A few are veterans, like Australian designer and photographer Daniel Rosenbaum; others are students, architects, industrial designers, sculptors, painters, jewellers, textile designers, theatre designers, NASA shuttle designers, graffiti artists and comic book illustrators, who have never worked with ice in their lives. Many tell a similar tale – I read about the Icehotel in a newspaper, and I had to see what it was like.

For Rosenbaum, who has worked on four Icehotels and is planning his fifth, this is design utopia. The people, the landscape, but above all the pleasures of sculpting with ice are what draw him here. The ice used by the artists is a particularly glorious variety, due to the unsullied waters and rapid currents of the Torneälven River from which it is harvested. The way Torneälven ice responds to light and the way it shatters, Rosenbaum says, gives the impression of a great energy stored in its core. It is so exceptional it is exported to numerous countries below the Arctic Circle.

For the Icehotel artists, ice is much more inspiring than industrial materials. It doesn’t create clouds of dust, unlike modelling with foamed plastic; there is no sense of wastage if things go wrong, unlike designing with wood or metal. Ice yields to a chainsaw like butter; a blade can be stabbed into it without risk of kickback; it can be sculpted rapidly, if you know the correct technique. It can be backlit, and imprints the smallest details; it is strong enough to be used for structure; but it is also temporary, and all the hard labour, triumphs and mistakes of the Icehotel artists are washed away into the Torneälven by midsummer.

Without any previous experience with the material, Rosenbaum’s first season in Jukkasjarvi was a six month initiation in ice. He was attached to an American artist who was building an ice orchestra for the hotel’s now-franchised Absolut Ice Bar. Together they worked on a fully-functional ice pipe organ, casting snow into copper pipes, shaving them down with hand planes, removing the copper pipes with the aid of hairdryers, and cutting mouth pieces into the fragile ice pipes with CNC routers. It was a terrifying process – even a small shift in room temperature would alter the pipes’ tuning – but the experience was invaluable. With increasingly less time given to Icehotel artists to perform their work, insider tricks and shortcuts are the name of the game.

These are boom times for the Icehotel, which now boasts a consecrated ice chapel for weddings, an ice art gallery, an ice cinema, and a sister hotel in Duchesnay, Quebec. Up to thirty thousand visitors and fifteen thousand guests are bussed in to Jukkasjarvi every year during what is meant to be the tourist low season. As testament to the hotel’s blockbuster status, a James Bond movie flagrantly borrowed its design and created a plastic Icehotel on a British soundstage as a venue for one of its villains.

The concept and structure of the hotel were pioneered in the 1990s by architect Åke Larsson and sculptor and land artist Arne Bergh. They set upon the largest and safest possible snow-built form for the hotel suites, and invented a methodology for simple duplication. Steel framework domes set on skiis, or huge red inflatables are used as moulds for all the suites and public spaces. Blanketed with a metre of snow thrown up by a machine, they hold their shape as the snow sinks, compacts and binds around them. The steel frameworks are hammered free and slid out with a tractor, and the inflatables are simply deflated and removed. The Ice Bar mould leaves a space inspired by the Basilique Cathedral in Reims; the mould for the suites leaves a dark, seven-metre-long void, with a chapel-like catenary arch roof vaulting four metres into the air. Ice pillars give extra support to the huge arches over the public spaces.

Each design team, made up of one or two artists, is given one suite interior to work with. This year twenty suites will be moulded and twenty teams will be invited to participate, based on their proposals and portfolios. From Russian Art Nouveau, Gaudi-inspired and faux English country house to minimalist, organic and plasmic designs, the annual spread is always of high competency, and some suites are genuinely brilliant – but none can fail to overwhelm a paying customer. The materials see to that.

All designers must create a double bed base made of ice, to be covered with a mattress and reindeer skins; some fashion other furniture items, including lamps; others include more traditional ice sculptures around the room. Sloping floors, icy steps, and beds on the floor are all bad ideas, and are prohibited in the design guidelines. No foreign materials or dyes can be introduced into the ice.

Rosenbaum tends towards the organic; he is particularly interested in the tension and stress of water, as seen in the stretched gum-like forms of his 2007 suite, Life on Earth. His 2006 suite, Change of State, was one of the hotel’s finest: charting the metamorphoses of water molecules along its length, it heaped dramatic spheres of snow down one end, and set a frozen pool with a frozen waterfall down the other. A long “window” strip of carved ice along one flank of the suite progresses from clear to pixelated in a clever rendering of the freezing process.

Light is vital to any design; and while the teams are not allowed to bring in extra assistants for sculpting, electricians armed with several years of expertise and a workshop full of previously used lamps are on hand to chase cables and test the connections. The cables are buried underfoot with a double-bladed chainsaw, while chimneys are drilled for the embedded light fittings to prevent their radiant heat from melting surrounding ice and causing shortcircuits. Typically the lights are highly sophisticated LED or fibreoptic models, and offer an opportunity to introduce colour and special effects into the design.

For the larger and more elaborate elements of Rosenbaum’s suites, creative heavy lifting methods were required. Before the far wall was sealed up, he squeezed in tractors carrying loads of ice. Holes were cut in the ceilings to allow cranes to lower materials. Once the room was sealed and he was on his own, he shifted the standard two tonne blocks of ice using plexiglass ramps, nudged into place with crowbars.The work is physically exhausting. Artists labour well into the evening in indoor temperatures of five below. Outdoors, it can drop lower than
forty below. The sun sets at around 2:30 in the afternoon, and artists work only by the light of a standard issue floor lamp. Last year, Rosenbaum admits, was a more difficult and pressing task than usual, when a two week deadline tested his usual fussiness and thoroughness.

Yet the pull is irresistible. It is hard not to be won over by the five hour sunsets of Lapland in late winter, nor by a brief entirely unique in the world of architecture. It may be hard work, but utopia was never meant to be easy. +

Previous. Daniel Rosenbaum's Change of State suite (2006), which was inspired by the formations found in liquid water, solid ice, and gaseous water vapour.

Top. The Main Hall of the Icehotel (2004).

The reception area (2006), designed by Mikael Nilsson, a specialist in the translation of computer graphics to ice using computer operated routers, and Mark Armstrong, an English architect.

Third. Detail of Daniel Rosenbaum's 2005 suite, Hamankind, created with industrial designer Jorgen Westin.

Fourth. A band of Dutch stylists and set designers constructed 2007's theatrical Ice Church. The detail on the far wall is a twinflower, Sweden's national flower.

Bottom. In the surrealist tradition, Patrick Dollard and Santo Magonza's Hammam suite (2007) is an early Arabian bathhouse made of ice.

Images courtesy of the Icehotel and Daniel Rosenbaum.