Moving to a new town is one thing. But you don’t hear too often about moving with an entire town, buildings and all, to a new, usually not-too-far away locale. Despite the relative rarity of whole-town relocation projects, there are more than a couple of notable examples of established populations packing up and resettling en masse.
There’s Hibbing, Minnesota, where 200 buildings were painstakingly moved 2 miles to the south between 1919 and 1921 to make way for an expanding iron ore mine. The rural Australian town of Tallangatta was shifted 5 miles to the west in the 1950s due to a dam expansion project. Morococha, a mining outpost in Peru, was rechristened "New Morococha" in 2013 after a Chinese aluminum company ordered the town be moved several miles to less toxic ground. More recently, Isle de Jean Charles, a sinking-into-the-bayou island community in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, is the center of the first federally funded, climate-related resettlement project in the United States.
And then there’s Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town. Like most other examples of whole-town relocations, the moving of Kiruna was prompted by irreparable environmental degradation. In this instance, the entire town center is located directly atop the world’s largest underground iron ore deposit. With mining activities in and around town showing no sign of slowing, the already shaky ground beneath Kiruna is at risk of becoming increasingly unstable. And so, to avoid being swallowed by the mines below in one calamitous gulp, this lively and prosperous town began the process of relocating nearly 3 miles to the east in 2014.
Kiruna (pop: 18,000) is different than the relocated towns that have come before it. For one, it’s big — or much bigger than previous examples. In addition to the over 5,000 homes that will be razed and rebuilt, the town is home to a handful of historic landmarks including Kiruna Church, a hulking wood structure considered one of the most iconic works of Swedish architecture, that need to be moved — either as is or carefully deconstructed — via truck. Located 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kiruna is also an active space research hub as well as a bustling base camp for adventure-seeking tourists (not to mention Icehotel reservation holders) who flock to Swedish Lapland to mush, climb mountains and frolic under the midnight sun. This is all to say, Kiruna may be far-flung and frostbitten, but it’s certainly not a podunk town.
Financed by mining company LKAB, the $1 billion relocation project is unfolding in a slow and steady manner. Still, some residents feel unmoored by the process. And this is where a portable sauna shaped like a giant golden egg comes in.
Dubbed Solar Egg, the structure, recently given the mini-documentary treatment by Great Big Story in the above video, was hatched last spring by Stockholm-based Bigert & Bergström as a commission for Riksbyggen, a Swedish housing development company building 250 co-op apartment units in the "new" Kiruna.
Standing 16 feet tall, this traditional sauna masquerading as an avant-garde sculpture is clad in 69 individual segments of gold-mirrored stainless steel sheeting that reflect the surrounding landscape while, in the words of Riksbyggen, taking "the sun as catalyst for creativity, care, hope and togetherness." (It’s worth noting that the "solar" in Solar Egg refers to the way that sunlight interacts with the multi-faceted surface of the structure and not because it’s adorned with photovoltaic panels.)
Artistic duo Bigert & Bergström describe the core of their work as being 'placed right in the junction between humanity, nature and technology.' Solar Egg is the first to involve a fully functional sauna. (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger)
Accessible via a set of drawbridge stairs, Solar Egg's sweat-inducing interior can accommodate eight people. At the center of the sauna, which is lined with pine walls and benches crafted from aspen, is the obligatory stove. Made from iron and stone, this particular stove takes the shape of an anatomical heart and warms the egg’s insides up to a perspiration-sparking temp between 75 to 85 degrees Celsius (167 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit.)
First originating (and still most popular) in Finland, saunas are a dime a dozen across Scandinavia and the Baltic countries where they serve as regular venues for half-naked coffee klatches (minus the coffee.) Unlike in the U.S., for example, where they’re viewed largely as a place to stretch and unwind post-workout at the gym, saunas in their home turf are social hubs where friends and neighbors go to converse, commiserate and catch up on gossip.
Solar Egg was conceived as an 'ideas incubator' where new opinions and thoughts can be hatched over a healthy communal sweat session with friends, neighbors or complete strangers. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images)
An egg-shaped gathering spot for a scrambled community
With Solar Egg, Bigert and Bergström have created a very special sauna for a very special town in the midst of what the duo calls a "radical transformation." Any ordinary sauna wouldn’t do.
After all, the people of Kiruna have a lot to talk about. Solar Egg, its ovoid shape symbolizing rebirth, functions as a sort of town hall-meets-therapist’s office where locals are encouraged to vocalize what’s on their minds and "hatch" new ideas as the relocation of Kiruna progresses.
Write Bigert & Bergström:
The iron ore is and has been — ever since it first began to be extracted at the end of the 19th century — an important source of income for Sweden, and absolutely vital for the town of Kiruna. No mine, no town. But the breaking up and devastating transformation of the landscape, the environment and the architecture caused by the move are also sparking a lot of debate. Solar Egg has been made as a social sculpture where local people and visitors to the town can meet and, for instance, discuss these challenges.
While primarily catering to locals who have something to get off their chests in public, there’s also the requisite tourism aspect to this unusual-looking sudatory. Out-of-towners are welcome to pop on by for a shvitz at Solar Egg, which Swedish tourism officials are heralding as the country’s newest, most unique and likely first sculpture that you can also sweat inside of. The travel section of England’s the Evening Standard even went as far as to single out Solar Egg as a bucket list-worthy site.
Solar Egg enjoyed a brief sojourn to Paris in the winter of 2017 to promote Lapland tourism and the Scandinavian tradition of socializing with semi-nude strangers around a stove. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)
To further promote sauna-based socialization and Swedish design while also raising awareness of the ambitious relocation project unfolding in Kiruna, Solar Egg rolled into France last winter for a nearly month-long stint in the courtyard of the Swedish Institute in Paris. After being sweat upon by hundreds of chatty Parisians, the portable sauna is now back in Kiruna where Bigert and Bergström hope it will continue to serve as the backdrop for many honest conversations about the past, present and future of this historic mining town on the move.
"The thought of moving a whole town must be heart-wrenching for the people who live there," Lars Bergström tells Great Big Story. "The Solar Egg will work [for the town] as a golden think tank and hopefully lots of new ideas will be born there."
Inset image courtesy Jean-Baptiste Béranger
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