An Arctic Institution, Sweden's Ice Hotel Turns 25

Jan 31, 2015
Originally published on January 31, 2015 1:08 pm

This year marks 25 years of the original Ice Hotel, carved from snow and ice bricks in far northern Sweden. This story originally aired on All Things Considered on Jan. 29, 2015.

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An Arctic institution celebrates its 25th anniversary. The original Icehotel is 120 miles above the Arctic Circle in far north Sweden. Now, other hotels made of ice have since popped up around the world - probably in the north - but the first one, this first one, offers something else - it's also an art exhibition that changes every year. NPR's Ari Shapiro braved the cold and paid a visit.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The temperature outside is 22 degrees below zero. That's -30 Celsius. Whatever you call it, it's way beyond freezing. And Jens Thoms Ivarsson stands over a block of ice with a razor-sharp chisel. He's turning a bare room into an ornate Spanish mosque made entirely of ice.

And some of it is crystal-clear, some of it looks like snow, some of it is textured, like a rough stone. Are those all artistic techniques that you've learned of how to work with ice?

JENS THOMS IVARSSON: Yeah. So I used to work with stone and wood and concrete. I always like to bring out the qualities that's in the material. For this, I mean, here it's just water.

SHAPIRO: Ivarsson is a sculptor and for the last two years he's been design director at the Icehotel. This 55-room lodge is built from scratch every fall entirely from the frozen Torne River. Every spring it melts back into the water it came from. Ivarsson says as an artist that impermanence frees him from the pressure of carving something out of marble or granite that seems permanent.

IVARSSON: So when I work with the ice and snow, it's very liberating because I know already when I start, you know, on the drawing board, that this will disappear.

SHAPIRO: Every year more than a hundred artists from around the world compete to design rooms here. Fifteen are chosen. The Icehotel then flies them to Kiruna, Sweden.

IVARSSON: And a lot of those had never, ever worked with snow and ice before. And that's what we want. For us, that's important.

SHAPIRO: He says everyone has seen swans and eagles before. He wants artists to find something new in the ice. There are rooms that look like forests or cathedrals. One room has typeface set into the wall. Another is pure angles, telescoping and spiraling inwards. Each room has a bed in a center covered in reindeer hides because people actually sleep here. Tour guide Paola Lappalinen says the building provides a level of insulation - she's talking Celsius.

PAOLA LAPPALINEN: Even though the temperature outside at the moment is about -30, inside the hotel rooms, it's never colder than -5 or -7.

SHAPIRO: So warm.

LAPPALINEN: That's really warm. Even sometimes when we go in the morning and wake people up in the hotel rooms, they say that it was too hot to sleep there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter). I don't believe that.

There is a warm room where people leave their luggage and electronics. The front desk hands out snowsuits, balaclavas, boots and sleeping bags heavy enough for the Arctic. But the minute you step outdoors, the inside of your nose begins to tingle with frost. Your eyelashes become thick and heavy with white ice crystals. Many hotel guests duck into the ice bar to drink Swedish vodka out of glasses made of ice. Gary Armstrong is here with his wife and adult daughter.

GARY ARMSTRONG: I was just saying how crazy it is with the English always complaining about the weather. And then we come here in January. You know, five degrees under for us is a nightmare, and we come to 30 degrees under. I mean, it's bizarre, really.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter). Why do that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter). We have no idea.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: People come because it's like experiencing a fantasy world, borrowed from the river, which will return to the river again in the spring. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.