The Frozen Art & Architecture of Sweden's Unusual ICEHOTEL: An interview with the Creative Director
It’s cold, but you’re warm and cozy inside your sleeping bag. As you breathe, the vapor from your exhales creates a light fog that somehow makes your surroundings seem that much more surreal. Everything around you is beautiful, fantastical even, and carved out of ice. You lie awake, taking in the magic of this place, when your thoughts are interrupted by a faint shuffle behind the large curtain in your room and you remember that hot lingonberry juice is about to be served, like it is every morning, by your hosts at the ICEHOTEL.
The world’s first and largest ice hotel is situated in the small village of Jukkasjärvi, just 12 miles east of Sweden’s northernmost town of Kiruna and roughly 125 miles above the Arctic Circle. Here, the sun shines for 50 consecutive days during the summer, aurora borealis can be seen during the winter, and the surrounding area features an astounding 6,000 lakes as well as six grand rivers. The Torne River is one of these, and it is the undisputed lifeline of the world-famous ICEHOTEL.
Each spring, during the month of March, ICEHOTEL harvests tons of ice from the Torne River that is kept on-site, in mostly naturally-chilled storage halls. It is used for both building the Icehotel Winter — which annually operates from December to April — for the following season, and the Icehotel 365, a permanent structure that houses the Art & Deluxe Suites, and more. Of course, the establishment also offers warm accommodations in the form of hotel rooms and chalets, but these are not made out of ice and snow.
The ICEHOTEL started as an art gallery. It was founded by Yngve Bergqvist in 1989, who — inspired by the Japanese tradition of ice sculpting — sought out the help of two professional ice instructors to teach a workshop on the art form. Artists were invited to attend, which they did with great enthusiasm. Encouraged by the success of the event, it was repeated again the following winter, when it yielded the first ever ice structure, a specially designed igloo that was constructed on the frozen river and used as an art gallery called the ARTic Hall.
It was a huge hit and attracted considerable attention the following winters. But, the ARTic Hall was not only for art, it was used for church services, showcases, and even featured a small bar. One evening, a party of guests asked if it could spend the night at the ARTic Hall. Equipped with reindeer skins and sleeping bags, the party woke up absolutely enthralled and enchanted by the experience. Although the ARTic Hall was not initially intended to be a seasonal hotel, making it into one became a plausible and intriguing idea that was realized shortly thereafter.
In November of 2016, ICEHOTEL began offering year-round ice and snow accommodations in addition to its seasonal winter option. Icehotel 365 was constructed by Swedish architect and sustainability designer Hans Eek. Bergqvist had always wanted to explore art using natural materials. As such, ice, snow, wood, and magnetite were used to complete the permanent structure and its specially designed ice art hall that includes Art & Deluxe Suites, an Ice Bar, and experience room — all of which run on solar power and other forms of green electricity, though the indoor temperature is -5 C.
The artistic legacy that brought the ICEHOTEL into existence is now stronger than ever before. Art is the soul of the hotel. As such, creatives are invited to unleash their imaginations and come up with the designs and decor for the amazing suites and accommodations that define the establishment. Because of the unusual medium, remote location, and coveted opportunity, the annual open call for ideas results in an influx of applications from artists with different skills, including theatre, structural design, camerawork, interior design, and more.
The creative team, consisting of over sixty people, works year round to bring together the ideas, blueprints, materials, and artists, that together make up the overall experience. But, its main goal is to seek out original ideas for the annual newly-constructed suites and artwork that are at the heart of the ICEHOTEL. And, since the establishment provides instructors and tools for the actual sculpting, there are no prerequisites for applying; all that matters are the ideas and that the artists are able to join the symposium to create the suites in person.
A panel of artists and ice experts evaluate the applications based on the originality of ideas and how well they fit with the overall composition of the exhibition. Between 35 and 40 artists are invited to come to Jukkasjärvi in November and build their design for the ice and snow suites. In addition, a number of experienced artists, with documented skills and technical knowledge, are asked to design the public areas, including those at Icehotel 365. Up to 10 professional light designers, who work with the artists, add the final touches to enhance the ambiance of the original art.
Some of the fascinating concepts featured this year include a “Winter Garden,” “Strawberry Room”, an icy “Sauna,” “A Journey Into Letterspace,” a “Toybox” room, and so much more. “The pandemic forced us to think differently, but the result is a stunning homage to Sweden,” states Luca Roncoroni, ICEHOTEL’s Creative Director, in a press release last year. “The 31st edition of ICEHOTEL will be a memorable one. The 35 artists created concepts that will mesmerize our guests, giving them a much-needed escape from the reality of this year.”
All of this year’s suites are available for guests through April. However, if you can’t travel to Sweden right now, you can still explore each suite’s original concept on Instagram using the hotel’s specially made augmented reality (AR) experiences. All suites come equipped with in-room QR codes, so guests can hear an audio guide tell them about each one on their mobile phone. Photos of all the suites and links for their specific AR experiences are available online.
ARTpublika Magazine had the opportunity to engage in a written exchange with Luca Roncoroni, Creative Director of the ICEHOTEL, about his work, favorite part of the hotel, and the artistic legacy that it upholds for over three decades.
Can you describe the planning process that dictates how events unfold over the year?
At the ICEHOTEL, the planning process for the upcoming winter season starts in March, when we harvest the ice from the Torne River. This period is very exciting, because we get to know the material we´ll be working with in a few months. Every year the ice is different, and we are reminded of the ephemerality and the allure of our project.
After that, we have a couple of months of quiet, since artists around the world are working on their concepts, which are normally evaluated by the jury in May.
What happens during those months of quiet?
Late spring is a very inspiring time for us. On the one hand, the Icehotel Winter and the art from the previous winter are melting, exposing the wonderful formations shaped by the weather and the sun, thereby, adding an extra dimension to the artists´ work. On the other hand, dialogue with new artists — about fine-tuning their concepts for the upcoming winter — is starting. These processes lead to unique art experiences the following November, when artists from all over the world come to Jukkasjärvi to build out their concepts. That’s when we get to experience the culmination of six months of work and preparation.
The goal is to work with the material in a very flexible and organic way, following the “frames" set by the climate. Ice changes by the day, and artists need to adjust to those changes. When construction is finished and lighting is installed, their visions are completed and ready to be experienced for the next few months, before they go back to their mother, the Torne River.
When designing a new hotel, what kinds of safety protocols do you need to think about?
The techniques used for constructing the Icehotel Winter have been developed in an empirical way, through years of testing and experience. The whole structure is based on the catenary arch, which is very strong and perfect for building with snow.
Because the quality of the snow can vary a lot from place to place, we have a person who goes around the hotel and measures/tests the quality of the structure by “punching” holes in the walls and roof. By doing this daily, we can make sure that the structure is strong and safe. In a way, you could say that we do the same thing here as people do with Parmesan cheese in Italy (my home country); they check the quality of the cheese during the aging period by punching holes and testing the product. We “taste” the snow in a similar way.
How do you decide on the annual themes?
We don’t! That is the beauty and uniqueness of ICEHOTEL. The artists send their proposals, and the jury picks the best ideas. That is why we have such a wide variety of art and design every single year.
What is the most difficult thing to construct?
I don’t think there is an answer to this question. The point is that one must understand the symbiotic relationship between the vision, practical knowledge, and the end result. At ICEHOTEL, we believe almost nothing is impossible — we know that we have the knowledge to solve almost any problems as well as the experience to make it happen. And, we are lucky to work with artists and designers who understand the material and the process.
How did you get involved with the ICEHOTEL?
I am a trained architect, but I came to ICEHOTEL in 2001 as a builder apprentice, which means I was fortunate enough to be a part of every step of the building process throughout many years. This is an advantage, now that I am working with the artists, because I can see the connection between their vision and the practical work/ building process.
After all these years, I still think that one of the most mesmerizing activities is the ice harvesting, which happens every spring on the Torne river. Just to see these huge and pristine ice blocks emerge from the water is absolutely magical!
Note* All images and video content are the creative and intellectual property of The Ice Hotel, www.Icehotel.com