The Observer: Will I have existed?

Screenshot 2018-12-03 at 07.13.52

The crack appeared a few years ago, and has been creeping towards the town of Kiruna ever since.

“The mines are underneath us,” says Göran Cars. It’s early afternoon but the sun is already setting behind the mountain, colouring the clouds and outlining the town’s most prominent feature: two huge smokestacks. “And you can see the direction of the cracks – coming from the mine, and going straight up to the city centre.”

The mine, Kiirunavaara, is the reason this Swedish town of roughly 20,000 people deep in northern Lapland exists at all. It is the world’s largest iron ore mine, and it dominates both economically and visually, the smokestacks sending up twin plumes of black smoke from the denuded mountain like a kind of Arctic Mordor.

Over a century, the miners have tunnelled so deep into the earth – 2km at some points – that they have now literally undermined the town. The caverns are causing subsidence, weakening the structure of the buildings, and opening a great crack in the earth itself, which grows wider and several metres closer to the city every year. Kiruna is about to be swallowed by the very mine that gave it life.

So, in 2004, a plan was hatched. Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB), the gigantic state-owned company that operates the mine, would simply move the city – houses and all.

It identified a condemned zone threatened by the growing sinkhole, and gave everyone living there three choices: LKAB would move you to a new apartment, buy you out at market rate plus 25%, or, if feasible, load your house on to a flatbed lorry and move it to the new city.

It was Cars who was given the responsibility to plan that new city.

“The basic idea here was to have a town square, because the present town doesn’t have a town square,” Cars said last week at the ribbon-cutting for City Hall, the first building in the new Kiruna. A very modern and very gold building designed by the Danish architects Henning Larsen, its most notable feature is that it has an art gallery built into it – the new Konstmuseet i Norr – a rectangular structure that squats inside the atrium like a cube of potato wrapped in smoked salmon.

Currently, City Hall sits more or less alone in what feels like the middle of nowhere. In fact the site was the former city dump, and then a succession of factories and junkyards known locally as Death Valley. But if Cars is to be believed, by no later than 1 September 2020 there will be an entire town on this spot.

The plans show mixed-use commercial and residential buildings, cinemas, libraries and hotels, radiating in broad avenues from City Hall – and all of it built at the kind of super-dense scale you expect in a capital city, not a sprawling town 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The scale of the project is unprecedented. Several dozen buildings will be moved by a specially assembled team of experts who have become so good at their jobs that Cars claims it’s now usually cheaper to move a home than to demolish and rebuild. The huge wooden church will be hoisted and moved; other buildings, such as the current city hall and the railway station, will be stripped of aesthetic elements, including lampposts and iron railings, to be incorporated into new structures.

And all of it will be paid for by LKAB. It’s not exactly generosity that is motivating the company. “The law is crystal clear,” Cars says. “The mine is required by Swedish national law to compensate for the structural damage it has caused.”

It’s also about survival. “Part of Kiruna’s absolute problem is that women have been moving away from the town while men have been staying on,” Cars says. He tells of efforts to attract foreign women to marry mineworkers. “Russians were popular. You had ads: ‘Wealthy miners looking for female company’, he says, adding: “This was some time ago.”

The deeper the mine, the more expensive it becomes to remove the iron – and the number of jobs is dropping, too, due to automation. In a globalised age it is increasingly hard to convince young people with university degrees to live deep inside the Arctic Circle.

“Our employees live here,” says Johan Mäkitaavola, project manager of LKAB. “I live in Kiruna. I want to have a nice city to live in. I hope my children will stay here or at least come back when they have studied. We need educated people to move to Kiruna and work.”

To survive, the city needs to diversify. It is already home to a budding space industry, and in the winter there are direct flights from Tokyo and Shanghai for sightseers eager to glimpse the northern lights. It remains impossible, however, to imagine Kiruna without LKAB, and vice versa.

An artist’s impression of a shopping street in the new city.
An artist’s impression of a shopping street in the new Kiruna city centre.

“It’s a big deal,” says Alice Bah Kuhnke, the Swedish minister for culture and democracy, who attended the opening ceremony along with the king of Sweden. “Big. For Swedes, LKAB has almost been part of our DNA – they are so important to the finances of the Swedish state. So for us that’s a really challenging thought, because since it’s such a big deal it’s hard as a politician and as a Swede to really be critical enough.”

Part of that means acknowledging an inconvenient truth – the fact that the new town sits on the territory of the Sami, the indigenous people of Lapland, whose reindeer herding is frequently disrupted by mining. The Sami convene their Swedish parliament in Kiruna – though you wouldn’t know it from the opening ceremony.

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