From a world of ice

It was a most remarkable hotel that Kinnarps Magazine's photographer Jonas Sällberg arrived at. One that would soon disappear completely and was already showing the first signs of melting away, becoming fuzzy at the edges. It was also rather wet in places. It was already April and late spring high up in northernmost Scandinavia, two hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The place is called Jukkasjärvi and lies on the River Torne in Swedish Lapland.

”We landed in Kiruna”, he reports. ”And then took the bus straight into what seemed like nothingness. To the west we could make out snow-covered hills and well-known silhouettes such as Kebnekaise and Lapporten. But we drove off in another direction, to the east, where the landscape was completely flat.”

Jonas Sällberg and his camera were on their way to the now famous Ice Hotel, a project that was born fifteen years ago in Jukkasjärvi and subsequently spawned a Canadian imitator in the Duchesnay Nature Reserve outside Quebec.A number of bars, chiselled from ice, have also ”calved” from the ice hotel concept in more temperate cities such as Milan, London and Stockholm.

The first ice hotel came about almost as a result of pure luck. A local tour operator who had attracted clients for many years with activities in the summer months, such as whitewater rafting, fishing and visiting the Sami, decided that the long, ice-cold and pitch-black winters would also appeal to some. An exhibition of Japanese ice art was held here in 1989 to international acclaim, followed by the work of a French artist the year after – in a specially built ice gallery, where some eccentric guests even decided to spend the night on reindeer skins. They actually enjoyed the experience and that is how the idea of an ice hotel was born.

The first ice gallery covered an area of sixty square metres. In contrast, today's ice hotel has grown to encompass five thousand square metres and is rebuilt each year from thirty thousand tons of snow and four thousand tons of ice. After all, an ice hotel melts away with the arrival of the warmth and light. Our photographer Jonas Sällberg could already see the first signs of this process.

”The ambience was very strange”, he says. “First the light, which begins to get really strong in late spring. Then the feeling that the decline had truly begun to set in, that the relentless forces of nature were taking their course – that was fascinating.” April is also the very tail end of this peculiar hotel's season that begins in mid-December. And a number of end-of-season guests were still there. But the annual rebuilding of the hotel has its own, partially overlapping timetable.

The fast-flowing water of the River Torne is considered to yield ice of peculiarly crystal clarity: it is “harvested” in March in the form of two-ton blocks that are kept in giant cold-storage rooms.The ice is subsequently used for ice bars around the world and to build next season's ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi. The job begins at the end of October, when thirty or so resident artists and building workers set about their task. They don't have to start completely from scratch every time, but use large vault-shaped steel sections to create the basic structure designed to give shape to the ice buildings.

Because the hotel is rebuilt each year, it doesn't look quite the same from one year to the next.The one that Jonas Sällberg came to had a partly oriental theme with lace-like patterns. Themes specific to Greenland have also been used, as well as many other kinds of figures. Its very transience offers the artists unique freedom to vary the carvings and sculptures with fancy flourishes.

- “The hotel itself was still intact when I was there”, says Jonas Sällberg.“Its forms and decoration were still distinct and precise, although they had begun to thaw. But I'm sure that the greatest difference was in the experience of the light. Between December and March it is pitch black there almost the entire day. That's when the effect of this ice architecture is even more fantastic and mystical.”