Ice, Snow and Awesome Artists - an artical about the IceHotel for Worth School Blue Paper
I am an architect who grew up in tropical Hong Kong and not particularly good at handling the cold weather; my partner Annie Hanauer is a contemporary dancer who grew up in Minnesota and can handle the harsh Midwest cold like a champion. Armed with these complementary skills, a large dose of fearlessness and a hint of naivety, we submitted a concept proposal for an international competition to design and construct one of IceHotel Sweden’s 20 specially commissioned Art Suites. An acceptance email arrived in our inboxes in April 2016, confirming we’ve been selected by the jurors to join other teams of international artists to build the 26th edition of IceHotel, in the small and tranquil Sami town of Jukkasjärvi, 200km north of the Arctic Circle.
We spent the next 6 months developing the design through iterations of drawings, model making and prototyping with homemade ice blocks from large water-filled balloons. Our design, the Cairn Forest, used cairns of ice to mark the paths of visitors from around the world crossing at IceHotel and highlight the raw beauty of ice drawn up from the Torne River. Taking inspiration from dry stone stacking, and the counterbalances that can be achieved through this ancient technique, we proposed to shape the suite with cairns of stacked ice of different sizes and shapes. They would create a labyrinthine environment for visitors to explore, with the stacks growing in density and height as they progressed from the entrance to the back wall. Visitors would pick their way through the balanced cairns, both towering and tiny, transparent and opaque, lit with an internal glow, to arrive at their destination - the bed, surrounded by stacked bricks of ice, which would create a snug cocoon to rest peacefully.
We anticipated our design would have to adapt to some unforeseen circumstances so we kept an open mind throughout this period of design development. For example our bodies and work rate would probably be affected by working 10 hours a day in a constant minus 15-degree Celsius environment; we were not able to accurately predict how ice would behave as a building material at life-size scale; we had no experience in operating heavy duty tools and machinery. The list of uncertainties was long but our curiosity and excitement kept us going. We could not wait to jump on that plane and begin the build.
Flying through the misty Nordic clouds our flight landed at a snow-covered airport just before lunch time. By the time we finished lunch and picked up our bulky work clothes, the sky outside was already completely pitch black. We soon learnt this pattern would repeat for the next 14 days of our stay: sunrise after breakfast a little before 9am, and sunset soon after lunch around 1.30pm. We did, however, get lucky with dramatic Northern Lights, and being able to watch the sky dancing ferociously in hues of green and purple was one of the most magical moments we'd ever experienced.
Our group of talented, enthusiastic and friendly international artists came from all corners of the world. The furthest was Argentina and the closest was Kiruna, a neighbouring Swedish town known for having the largest underground iron-ore mine in the world. To our surprise, we soon found out that only 4 teams, including us, were complete ice-novices; there were a number of ice-veterans who had been building and making art for the IceHotel since its inception 27 years ago in 1989.
Back then it was the world's first hotel made entirely out of ice and snow. The founders chose Jukkasjärvi for one very special reason: uninterrupted access to the Torne River. The river produces the most amazingly crystal clear, bubble and frost free ice thanks to a combination of fast flowing water current and rapid drop in temperature at the beginning of winter. Each ice block is a frozen artefact where traces of nature - pine needles, dried flower petals, even small fish – can get trapped inside and suspend in time. It was particularly fascinating for us to discover the complete lifecycle that formed around the river and the IceHotel: ice blocks from the river were used as building materials; water from the river was used as a joining adhesive; the tap water was by far the freshest that any of us could have ever drunk, and the hotel even brewed a special batch of tasty beer with water from the river! When the hotel began its slow melting process under the gentle April sun, every part of the build would turn into water and return to the river once more. If there was ever an example that epitomises the perfect circular economy in architecture and design this would have been it.
Operating alongside the international artists was a dedicated team of specialist builders working tirelessly around the clock to construct the iconic barrel-vaulted structural envelope with "snice" (snow mixed with ice to give added water content and strength) and get it ready for us to start building our Art Suites. There was also a dedicated support team who managed the logistics of the build and welfare of the artists. They taught us how to use chainsaw and ice chisels safely, gave us tips on ways to manoeuvre big and heavy ice blocks more efficiently, showed us tricks to level uneven ice surfaces with a board full of sharp nails, and demonstrated how to make strong, tight joints by using a heated flat steel plate to melt a thin layer of ice between the blocks.
The first few days were utterly overwhelming. Our fingers were constantly frozen due to our gloves getting wet from handling ice blocks over an extended period of time; we consumed an ample amount of meat and potatoes with cream sauce and lingonberry jam to sustain our energy level in the cold; we over-exhausted ourselves from chainsawing, lifting and moving heavy ice blocks into position. Since the technique of cairn building is all about finding the sweet spot of almost improbable balance, we set up lots of trials to ensure the largest ice block (circa.80cm x 50cm x 20cm), each weighed at least 60kg, wouldn’t fall onto sleeping guests or get knocked over by excited visitors. The lessons we learnt were invaluable but they also confirmed our expectation that a large chunk of the pre-designed work would have to be discarded. In the end, we decided to make design decisions as and when we cut the ice, one piece at a time.
Toward the end of the 14-day build we began to get used to the working rhythm. Our architect friend Mei Chan joined us from London and soon we found ourselves confidently putting finishing touches to the ice blocks like we've been working with the material for years. With the help from the lighting design team and a couple of volunteers, we finished the build right on time for the group presentation evening. Everybody from the canteen staff to the builders gathered to listen to the artists present their designs, getting a first look at the completed Art Suites and celebrating the vision and hard work of the entire team. We even slept in our freshly completed room, which in itself was a surreal and surprisingly pleasant experience.
True to the Scandinavian ethos of a healthy work-life balance, the IceHotel provided us with outdoor activities, good parties and relaxing sauna after the labour-intensive work. The most memorable party by far was one that celebrated the project completion, where all of us jumped into the sauna with beers in our hands and then cooled off by skinny dipping in the sub-zero river, only to start the whole process again until wee hours into the night!
IceHotel was without a doubt the most magical project that we have ever done. Sitting at my desk in London writing this article for the Blue Paper, I still have a vivid image of the sky with dramatic changing tones and colours, and the magnificent landscape that has no visual boundary between white snow background and ice cold foreground. The IceHotel 2016 had since melted under the April sun and returned to the Torne River, but it will always have a special place in our hearts. I was particularly pleased that my proud parents managed to visit it in February and stayed in our room for the night. I gathered they thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sleeping in our design because they talked endlessly about it afterwards to anyone back home who cared to know!
There was a copious amount of work that went into designing and constructing something that had such short life span and would never be seen again, but it was precisely this temporal and seasonal quality that fascinated us in the first place. It was a one-off project that left a small creative footprint for a moment in time and graciously returned to Mother Nature when its time was up, and I cannot think of another project in our professional lives that could remotely offer such a unique quality. We learnt a huge amount from the hands-on making process and from the people who worked with us to realise our first ice build. We already have a few ideas for the next one and cannot wait to make another design application for next year and the years to come.