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Rolling ­programme

Martin Johnson

Archigram’s cities walked – this one’s creeping east, away from the mine that feeds it

Kiruna in the year 2100
Kiruna in the year 2100 Credit: Kiruna 4-Ever: Mikael Stenqvist & Krister Lindstedt (White Arkitekter) with Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter

Dear Sir Peter Cook,

I’d like to tell you about a moving city. Of course, all cities can be described as growing, contracting and changing, but this one moves. A city, in the Arctic north of Sweden, that I think you could get excited about: Kiruna. 

An industrial city where the sun never sets in the height of summer and never rises in the depths of winter. A region with reindeer husbandry, snow, Sami people, and the Aurora Borealis overhead to further set the filmic scene. Kiruna, with 18,000 inhabitants, was created by the world’s largest underground iron ore mine, Kirunavaara, on the city’s western border. The city has a symbiotic relationship with the mine as its primary economic resource, but as it digs ever deeper into the earth it is encroaching towards the city. The scenario shares similarities with a dystopian science fiction tale. Either the digging must stop – creating mass unemployment – or the city’s inhabitants must move and allow their homes to fall into the uninhabitable deformation zone. 

The local government decided to flee the mine’s deformation zone and relocate the city a few miles to the east. To do this the city must nose its way, building by building, eastwards, leapfrogging itself. This barmy ­undertaking illustrates the extent of the global thirst for natural resources that may possibly affect the whole Arctic region in the future, as global prices rise and natural resource extraction becomes increasingly viable.

Kiruna will be more a walking millipede than Ron Herron’s eight-legged procession of urbanity in Archigram’s ‘Walking City’

Kiruna will be more a walking millipede than Ron Herron’s eight-legged procession of urbanity in the Archigram project ‘Walking City’. It will lift one foot from the back and place it at the front. It will crawl only a few kilometers over 100 years, but will bring everyone with it. The city as artefact could be nimble and move at whim, but a city of people must take a slower course. 

The challenge of moving Kiruna lies in the choreography, where the architectural team plays the conductor; an orchestration of transformation amid the vast landscape. The creation of place is all-important, and the greatest challenge lies in the social aspects of the transformation, which is already under way. The project team is working on the city square, which will form the heart of the new city and is due for completion in 2016. The square is actually a hexagon that will house the city hall, train station and travel centre.     

A city is a complex network of space, a structure for movement and interaction, a group of people, an identity, and a relationship between that which is city, and that which is not. It is not only the material used to make up its physicality. All elements must move together. Key buildings will be transposed into the new city fabric to retain a consistency of identity and history. Materials will be disassembled and shifted across. Facades, windows and parts of buildings can be chopped up and re-imagined to create ­hybrids between the old and new.  

Humans have affected the earth with as much might as the forces of nature, so Kiruna is not unique in needing a conceptual solution for a city that now finds itself in the wrong place. This may be the first moving city, but it won’t be the last. 

Martin Johnson is with White Arkitekter