Builders race against spring to fashion Swedish ice hotel

The painstakingly crafted luxury suites will melt in the spring thaw, but the Icehotel — now in its 23rd year — is becoming a permanent feature of Sweden’s landscape

by Camille Bas-wohlert  /  AFP, JUKKASJARVI, Sweden

Sun, Dec 16, 2012 - Page 14

In a small Arctic town in Sweden, a construction crew bundled up in heavy parkas is bustling around a building site unlike any other: A massive ice hotel is taking shape.

Armed with thick gloves and safety helmets over fur-lined hats, the builders in the northern town of Jukkasjarvi assemble 2 tonne blocks of ice as if they were a large set of Lego blocks, with the end result a giant igloo with several domes, vaulted ceilings and archways.

In one hallway, a worker uses a large pick to carve a door out of blue-tinged packed snow, working up a sweat despite the sub-zero temperatures as he exhales feathery puffs of breath.

The builders had just a few weeks to sculpt 65 hotel rooms, a lobby and reception area, a main hall and an ice bar in a race against the clock ahead of the opening earlier this month.

An ice chapel will be added to host weddings and christenings, complete with an ice-sculpted altar, font and pews.

Yet all this effort is ephemeral: In a few months, the entire structure will melt away with the spring thaw.

“We’re completely dependent on the weather, we have a schedule to adhere to, but it varies from year to year,” Icehotel representative Beatrice Karlsson said.

The construction method is unique to the Icehotel, to Nordic architecture expert Rasmus Waern said.

“It’s totally original. There’s no tradition in Scandinavia of building with ice,” he said.

However, it is rapidly becoming a tradition: the Icehotel is being staged for the 23rd time this year on the shores of the Torne River from where the ice is taken.

“In March, 5,000 tonnes of ice are pulled from the river and then conserved in 2 tonne blocks in two warehouses where the temperature is maintained at between minus-8oC and minus-5oC,” said Jens Thoms Ivarsson, who is in charge of the hotel’s interior design.

Construction typically begins in the autumn, when the first polar chills descend on Sweden’s far north.

However, once spring arrives five months later, bringing with it the long-awaited sun, the entire site melts down.

“We return to the Torne what we borrowed,” said Thoms Ivarsson, grateful for the river’s loan without which the Icehotel could not exist.

Once the building process is completed, the interior still needs to be decorated. Ornate chandeliers will embellish the main hall, while avant-garde sculptures, bas reliefs, chairs and beds all cut out of ice will adorn the rooms.

Each of the 16 suites is considered a unique piece of art, designed by artists selected from more than 100 applicants from all corners of the globe.

While management refuses to disclose how much the entire endeavor costs each year, the hotel’s interior design alone has a budget of 5 million kronor (US$752,000).

Ambitious sculptures in the past have included a pinball machine with colored lights inside the ice, a man sitting on a toilet in a bathroom, a female Buddha, a rocket ship and the inside of a refrigerator.

The hotel also has 49 standard rooms with less elaborate decor, some of which will feature scenes of northern lights, a spectacular phenomenon also known as the aurora borealis in which streams of colored lights streak across the night sky, a show some visitors will be lucky enough to see during their stay.

As in the suites, all of the regular room beds are made of ice blocks covered with reindeer skins. Visitors spending the night are given thermal sleeping bags when they check in — and a diploma when they check out to prove they survived a night at minus-7oC.

The hotel — copies of which are now erected in several other countries — has no stars the way other hotels do.

Yet that does not mean it is for budget travelers: The cost of a room ranges from 2,200 kronor to 7,000 kronor per night.

Alternately, tourists can pay 325 kronor a head to tour the hotel, which also makes money off the weddings and christenings it hosts, as well as the popular ice bar where drinks are served in glasses made of ice.