Since 1990, Sweden's Icehotel has been built, lost, and built again from season to season, inspiring imitators all over the world. What began as a seat-of-the-pants operation—a bunch of Swedes pulling huge hunks of ice out of the Torne River by hand, and hauling them via snowmobile to their construction site—has since become an institution that draws upwards of 60,000 visitors each year. As an art piece, it involves commissioning different rooms from about 50 artists; the last two seasons have turned up a UFO-themed suite and one with an interior cityscape, to name just a few. Reached by phone, creative director Arne Bergh said the goal is to draw creatives, not traditional ice sculptors with whom the final product "would only be swans and dolphins." But while the aesthetic aim is all about experimentation, the construction process depends on a variety of time-tested methods.
Though construction starts in November, when the nights in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, have gotten darker and the Northern Lights season is in full swing, preparation begins in March, during the ice harvesting period. Snow-cutting machines are used to saw some 2,500 ice blocks from the Torne, each measuring about 70 cubic feet, amounting to a total haul of more than 5,000 tons. Volvo wheel loaders outfitted with custom lifting gears haul the blocks to a nearby warehouse, where they're stored until December. According to Bergh, having ice on hand is essential for "thinking efficiently about the building process." He's had the optimal-size ice blocks on reserve since March, after all, so "we can do a lot of work in advance with precut blocks."
The first Icehotel was essentially an igloo with paintings hung inside. Bergh joined the project in the mid-'90s, after working as an artist in Stockholm, when it was making the transition to the 64,000-square-foot behemoth it is today. Now, the team of 30 to 40 builders works off a pretty standard blueprint, which has stayed approximately the same over the last few years, though with the hotel's 25th anniversary approaching, they're looking to change things up a bit. Wood beams and metal grids are used to support the structure, but the mission, which "came by and by," is to be "as true to nature as possible, creating something astonishing out of the river that should return to it." As grand as the completed hotel is, the greater astonishment might lie in the details: the million-or-so ice glasses they stock the bar and restaurant with each year, the furniture they sculpt to stock each room.
"I wouldn't believe my eyes with how efficient we are now," says Bergh about the construction timeline, which has been slimmed down over the years to eight weeks. Once the framework is finished, snow cannons are used to fill out the core with what the staff calls "snice"—essentially just a snow/ice cocktail with a higher density than natural snow, which insulates better and melts slower due to the air between the ice crystals. After that, clear blocks of ice are brought in and laid atop the snice. This process is repeated for six castings, with one big section completed at a time. After that, six weeks are spent on the detail work, furniture, and room sculptures.
The hotels opens around the December 10, when one section is completely finished, with another rolled out each week until the beginning of January. In addition, the staff also builds an ice chapel nearby, which gets officially consecrated by the Church of Sweden on Christmas day. The hotel stays open until mid-April, usually around Easter, and when the Icehotel starts melting, due to its arch-based structure, the process follows the shape of the domes, with the roofs opening up as the ceilings thin out.
Naturally, one doesn't stay in this business for two decades without being OK with the whole process being rather ephemeral. "There comes a time," says Bergh, "when the sun is high and it starts to go back to nature, and for me it's a feeling of content. I walk alone in the ruins and I see them changing day to day, and I think there's such beauty in it."