Cyclical design at the Icehotel

Temperatures have been dropping quickly here in northern Europe these last couple weeks, and before all this rare snow in Gothenburg turns into slush, I thought it would be the perfect time to reminisce about a trip I made to Swedish Lapland a few years ago. Lapland is the name of the region consisting of the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and travelers from all over the world head there every winter to experience the frozen landscape and the activities it offers – from dog sledding and swimming in frozen lakes to sitting out by a fire waiting for northern lights. For me the main reason to brave the -30°C temperatures was something else. It was the Icehotel.

The Icehotel is a hotel located in the small village of Jukkasjärvi that is built every winter from snow and ice. But it’s not just a normal hotel that happens to be built with ice and snow. The unusual materials are used in a way that brings out the best in them – resulting in a building that couldn’t be made with any other materials. While many tourists come to the Icehotel every year, a lot of them only visit during the day like me because staying the night is not cheap. Prices for the simple snow and ice rooms start from around 300 dollars per night while the deluxe suite – which is so deluxe that other visitors can’t even see it – costs around 1000 dollars per night. At least the room price includes an expedition sleeping bag and hot lingonberry juice.

The entrance of the Icehotel
In the Icehotel snow and ice are used to create spaces that wouldn’t be possible with other materials, such as this skylight where light is filtered through thin layers of snow.

Hotel by night, art exhibition by day

There are many other hotels and other buildings built with ice and snow around the world, but the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi is the original Icehotel. First built during the winter of 1989-1990, the Icehotel actually started out as an art exhibition and only later turned into lodging.  During the night the Icehotel works like any hotel, but during the day it is more of a museum and anyone can come and see the rooms and the unique art created from ice and snow. There’s also an ice chapel which is popular for weddings, and an ice bar where even the glasses are made of ice.

Because the Icehotel melts every year after the winter, the hotel is rebuilt every year and every year the design changes. While the main structure and the common spaces are surely also works of art, the most unique rooms are the art suites. Artists from all over the world submit their design proposals for these luxury art suites and a lucky 20 or so artists or groups of artists are chosen to come to Sweden to hand carve their designs into a suite that people can then book and sleep in.

An art suite in the Icehotel
Sleeping in an art suite such as this would be a unique experience. The beds are made from ice and covered with reindeer skins.

Carving the design of the whole room out of ice and snow takes a lot of time and hard labour. Some of the artists have never carved ice before and yet they manage to turn the ice and the snow into unique works of art. The small details bring out the characteristics of the materials, such as the texture of the snow and the reflecting properties of the ice. The resulting building brings light to the long, dark nights of Swedish winter.

Detail created with ice
The Icehotel is full of unique details that bring out the unique properties of the materials.

Natural materials and cycles

It might not sound logical until you experience it but the interior of the Icehotel is actually much warmer than one would expect. Despite the name, the Icehotel is actually made mostly of snow. The main structure of the building are thick walls made with snow the has ice mixed in for increased strength. The resulting walls are so thick they provide insulation from the cold outdoor air. While temperatures outdoors can easily reach -30°C, the indoor temperature of the Icehotel is pretty stable at just below freezing, around -5°C. That might not sound very warm but trust me, after -30°C it is. The snow is also a very good acoustic insulator and the rooms don’t even have proper doors because the snow absorbs all the sound and a curtain is enough to provide privacy.

Sami tent covered with snow
Snow is actually a good insulator and snow gathering on structures such as this traditional tent of the indigenous Sami people provides insulation in the winter.

The ice is harvested from the nearby Torne river, and every spring as the Icehotel melts the water is brought back into the river. All the hard work gone into carving the ice melts away, never to be seen again in the same way. This makes the experience even more unique and every year the cycle continues but the design is never the same, just like no natural cycle is exactly the same. The only negative part about this cycle is that because ice is harvested the year before it needs to be stored in massive freezers during the summer. The Icehotel might not be the solution to the world’s problems, but it is an inspiring example of what can be done with natural materials when their properties are understood and appreciated.

Seats in the ice chapel
Seats in the ice chapel that are made from huge blocks of natural ice harvested from the Torne river.

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