Living in a Lost Modern Utopia

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Living in a lost modern utopia The global village of Svappavaara By Andrea Luciani


Table of Contents




Understanding a building through archive sources


The “Svappavaara debate” in the newspapers


Is Ormen Långe cultural heritage?


Reactivating the public spaces of Ormen Långe





Andrea Luciani

MSc in Architecture and PhD in Preservation of Architectural Heritage, Politecnico di Milano, Italy. Andrea’s research focuses on the sustainable management of built heritage and historic environments. His research has ranged from the analysis of the indoor climate in historic buildings and museums, to energy retrofitting strategies of built heritage, to the conservation of modern architecture. Since he moved to Luleå University of Technology in northern Sweden in 2017, he started studying how local historic mining towns and built environments are transforming under the pressure of resource extraction activities. It is following these new interests, together with his curiosity towards the perception of modern heritage among local communities, that he started exploring Erskine’s work in Svappavaara.

Next spread: Figure 1 Ralph Erskine, Architect and Lars Harald Westman, Illustrator. An Ecological Arctic Town, 1958, Gouache and Pencil on Print. ArkDes collections ARKM. 1986-17-0362

Figure 2 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. Proposal for a new town with a protective housing wall, 1964?. ArkDes collections ARKM.1986-17-0923-02 Figure 3 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. Proposal for the town centre with cinema, library, shops and school, 1964. ArkDes collections ARKM.1986-17-0923-03


Svappavaara is a village in the North of Sweden, located above the Arctic Circle between the mining towns of Kiruna and Malmberget. But, as a proud “Svappavaarabo” told me, here a mine started already in the 17th century, centuries before Kiruna was even on the maps. Mining activities have largely determined the pace at which these communities have developed and expanded as well as shrank or even disappeared. Compared to the two nearby towns, Svappavaara is not currently facing the impressive urban transformations that will soon cause the “movement” of the city centre of Kiruna or the fading of Malmberget and its merging into the neighbouring town of Gällivare. A comparable moment of revolutionary changes and urban transformation came for Svappavaara in the 1960s, when the state-owned Swedish mining company LKAB decided to start the operations in the Leveäniemi iron ore mine. The small village could not provide enough accommodations and community services for LKAB workers, so in 1961 a competition was organised by the municipality of Kiruna in

collaboration with the mining company to plan the expansion of the town. Ralph Erskine’s entry, entitled “Ansikte mot söder” (Facing the south) won. At that time Erskine had been spending years developing his schemes and ideas for Arctic towns and architectures (Maudsley, 2020), which were even presented at the CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, the prestigious international congress of modern architecture. The plan proposed by Erskine seems the direct and straightforward application of those utopic schemes. A town in form of a dense bowl, sloping south to maximise solar access and protected from northern winds by a perimeter of wall buildings with housing. (fig.1 and 2) One can only imagine an enthusiastic Erskine finally given the possibility to realise in the form of a whole new town the ideas he had patiently refined for so long. But, after a tortuous planning process, not even the first stage of his plan was completed (Brunnström, 1982). In the end, the only buildings that materialised were the 197 metres multifamily housing “Ormen Långe”, which with its 88 apartments was meant to be part of the northern protective wall, together with a neighbourhood of 27 terraced houses and 25 detached houses. Erskine had also imagined a variegated and overdimensioned offer of community services, grouped in a multifunctional central building which could allow social life in a protected and warm environment. (fig.3) Of all this, just the school and a temporary grocery shop were initially realised, and not even following his design.

The lack of community services and facilities would have affected Svappavaara for a long time, while the defective and incomplete execution of his plan would have caused Erskine harsh criticism in the years to come. In 1969, after the outbreak of the Great Miners’ Strike, Svappavaara became nationally renowned for its poor living conditions, which were even considered having originated the protest. The situation did not improve in the following years. LKAB faced and economic crisis and decided to close the mine in 1982. The apartments left empty by those looking for work elsewhere were soon filled by newcomers: Svappavaara became in the 1990s a centre for refugees. Once they were moved out, the large number of abandoned and empty apartments in the village led to the decision to demolish the eastern part of Ormen Långe in 2010. In his preface to the “Kiruna Forever” exhibition catalogue, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco suggests that Kiruna can be understood as a “Hyperobject”, an object that involves multiple places and times simultaneously (Mínguez Carrasco, 2020). My perception of Svappavaara is rather that of a microcosm, where the tensions and contradictions caused by globalised processes (resource extraction, migrations…) are concentrated in a village of a few hundred inhabitants in a sparsely populated area. Hence the definition of Svappavaara as a “global village” in my project title. My approach to the ArkDes fellowship derived from my background as a building conservator: my starting

point is the understanding of the built environment both as a material document and as a collector of meanings, histories and stories, which are produced by its interactions with the surrounding society. In this sense, the more I learnt and discovered about the history of Svappavaara, the more I realised that Ormen Långe represented an inextricable catalyser of hopes and frustrations, vision and criticism, utopia and nostalgia. Out of scale, out of place, reduced to its half but still towering the village, Ormen Långe stands rather disconnected from the rest of the settlement as the most evident symbol of a lost modernist utopia and, for this reason, it has been the main focus of my project activities. The objectives of my project are: • Collecting, ordering and understanding existing archive materials and historical sources • Contributing to the preservation of a precious surviving element of Erskine’s legacy in the northernmost part of Sweden and, soon, his last remaining work in Kiruna municipality. • Engaging the current users, the building property and managers (Kiruna Kommun and Kirunabostäder) as well as the community of Svappavaara in the process. • Reactivating and reusing the abandoned public common spaces of Ormen Långe as innovative and inclusive spaces for the social life of Svappavaara.

Understanding a building through archive sources

Figure 4 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Ground floor plan with the internal street, 1964. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2703-02

Figure 5 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Sketches of the roof’s eaves. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2707-01. 13

During this project several archives have been consulted in order to collect information about the built environment, the society and their history. The largest contribution came from the ArkDes collections, which host Erskine’s archive. Other archives consulted have been Arkivcentrum Norrbotten, the archives of Kiruna Kommun (Bygglov and Bildsamling) and the archive of HSB (at the Centrum för Näringslivshistoria, Stockholm). The drawings from ArkDes collections testify the level of commitment and effort that Erskine put in designing Ormen Långe, in many cases up to a level of definition of the details and of the components that was never actually implemented. Around the time he was drawing Ormen Långe, Erskine wrote his article “Subarktisk elementarbok” for the HSB magazine Att Bo (Erskine, 1963). Here the schemes for an Arctic architecture, he presented a few years before at the CIAM ’59, were proposed together with examples of their implementation in buildings he had recently realised. Almost all the elements of the “grammar for northern latitudes” that Erskine collected in this article, can be found in the drawings for Ormen Långe. The archive has also unveiled those of them that, for various reasons, remained on paper. According to Erskine, a building in cold climate should ensure both “structural protection” and “structural separation”. The former was obtained by merging different functions under the same roof in a comfortable indoor environment, such as the internal street in the ground floor of Ormen Långe. Not only did it connect all the stairwells, but also hosted different spaces meant for facilitating the social life of the tenants: laundries, storage spaces and cellars, rooms to rent for shops or other functions, an indoor playground in the form of an inner square facing towards the south. (fig.4) Separation was instead meant as a strategy to improve insulation and avoid thermal bridges. A distinctive mark of Erskine’s projects to achieve this goal was the structural separation of terraces and balconies from the main core of the building, by adopting hanging or free-standing balconies. Neither of these solutions was applied in Ormen Långe but among the drawings in the archives, it is possible to find many early sketches and even an alternative proposal for the south façade, with both hanging and

Understanding a building through archive sources

Figure 6 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. South Elevation, 1965. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2703-01

Figure 7 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Alternative proposal for the south Elevation, 1964. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2703-02


free-standing balconies (fig. 7) and also refined technical details for the solution. In the article, Erskine suggested that in the subarctic climate the ground could be used to protect the building from the frost, as in the ground floor of Ormen Långe, which is partially covered by the ground. (fig. 6) He also suggested “aesthetics of the North” made of simplified and polished forms, to prevent frosting and lower the building costs, such as in the northern façade of Ormen Långe Solutions to cope with the snow were also an integral part of this aesthetics, such as the typical butterfly roof we can observe in Ormen Långe: dry snow, retained on the roof, would work as an additional insulation layer while iced snow was prevented from falling on the ground and melted snow and water would run in warm downpipes without freezing and get blocked. Wind protection was another important factor to be considered. We can see this in Ormen Långe’s wooden coated roof’s eaves (fig.5) or in the rounded corners of the western elevation, designed to reduce wind and prevent snow deposits. In addition, Erskine designed special protections for each entrance of Ormen Långe on both sides, a sort of tunnels to shield wind and air streams and to connect the inner road and the staircases to the car parking lots in the north-side and to the playgrounds in the south-side of the building. Not even these protections were realised, despite being present in several drawings, from general plans to technical details, until a later stage of the project.(Their contours can be seen in fig.8) Ormen Långe was designed to maximise solar access and exposition: the ribbon windows cover more than half of the surface of the south elevation, in order to catch horizontal light even in the darkest winter days. (fig.6) It was a quite peculiar choice for a building in the subarctic climate, but in Erskine’s vision solar gains and the enjoyment of light would compensate the thermal loss through the triple glazed original timber windows (unluckily, they have been recently substituted). Each apartment is provided with a balcony, designed with lateral wooden shields to offer a favourable microclimate with sunlight and fresh air: “Seek wind protection and solar radiation. Control the air movement.” to quote Erskine’s words. To optimise costs and shorten the construction period, two crucial factor to make building activities feasible in the North, prefab concrete construction was adopted. Countless detail drawings show how the yellow Siporex panels with extra insulation were articulated to clad both the straight and the curved shapes of the façades. Other drawings show the interest of Erskine for promoting social life and outdoor recreational activities in his Arctic settlements. A good example is the plate representing the plan and details of the outdoor areas, with street furniture, equipment and playgrounds.(fig. 8) Sand boxes for kids, benches, supports for bicycles and kick-sledges, ski racks were drawn in detail and carefully integrated in a harmonic and pleasant design, using different materials and paving. ArkDes collections have even revealed additional unrealised details and components that, to my knowledge, cannot be found in

Understanding a building through archive sources

Figure 8 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Plan and details of the playgrounds and of the street furniture, 1964. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2714-01


any other project by Erskine, such as the curious storage boxes in metal and wood for food and clothes that were meant to be hung on the north façade, below and overlapping the windows respectively. The image of Ormen Långe that emerges from all these sources is not that of a mere exploitative and functional block of apartments, but rather the representation of Erskine’s effort at concentrating in an exemplary architecture all the state-of-the-art solutions he had developed over the years for creating an aesthetic for the North. Unluckily, the reputation the building gained all over Sweden in a few years resulted very far from his ambition and expectations.

The “Svappavaara debate” in the newspapers

Figure 9 Clipping from Norrländska Socialdemokraten, 24/10/1968. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-0292-01A


Erskine’s archive in ArkDes collections preserves not only drawings and sketches. Among the various documents, it was possible to find a collection of around 80 articles on Svappavaara, spanning from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. According to Egelius (1988, p.45), Erskine had always cultivated his contacts with the press. It should not be surprising, then, that he was hiring a service to select and collect clippings of any journal article talking about him. In regards to Svappavaara, it is possible to notice at least three different moments when the village was discussed in the Swedish press: a first group of articles, from 1962 to 1965, focuses on result of the competition and the ongoing construction works; the second cluster, the largest, corresponds to the publication of Gruva by Sara Lidman (1969) and the eruption of the great miners’ strike, which started in Svappavaara. The third group (1973-75) came after some declarations by Erskine himself on Svappavaara and contains reportages about the situation in the village some years after the strike. This collection of articles is a very significant source of information, as it allows to track back how the feelings towards Svappavaara and Ormen Långe changed over time, especially in, probably, the most significant period of their history. A history that can be this way reconstructed in its meaningful richness and variation of perspectives, visions, narratives and expectations from several different actors. The articles in the early 60s have in general a positive attitude towards the new project: Svappavaara is described as “a Polar circle community where to thrive” (Expressen, 18/2/64) and Erskine sketches were presented to show how innovative and futuristic the town would become: the adjective “hypermodern” recurs several times. Not only the community, but also the work environment was expected to be very progressive: an article from the Aftonbladet of 6/9/1965 celebrating the 75th anniversary of LKAB underlined that Svappavaara would be the first mine in the country were female workforce would be largely employed, a “kvinnogruva” (women’s mine). The interviewed soon-to-be inhabitants or newcomers declare to be enthusiastic and excited about living in the new Svappavaara. Criticism against Ormen Långe appeared as early as 21/2/1964: an article in the local journal Norrländska Socialdemokraten (NSD)

The “Svappavaara debate” in the newspapers

Figure 10 Clipping from Expressen, 23/371969. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-292-02 21

defined it an “abnormal colossus” that would have dominated the village. It is reported the rejected proposal of dividing the 197m long building in three parts (some drawings of which can be found in ArkDes collections). In the following period local journals continued to document the problems affecting the community. Construction works were delayed and difficult and just the residential buildings designed by Erskine were built, while the village was lacking most of the planned services and facilities. By 1968 it was quite clear that Kiruna municipality was not willing to invest more resources in the development of Erskine’s plan, as LKAB had meantime rationalised its production and less workers were needed to run the mine effectively. The articles wondered if Kiruna had betrayed Svappavaara (Norrbottens Kuriren, 1/7/1968) and addressed the disillusion of the inhabitants: the architect’s dream had become a nightmare (NSD, 24/10/68), (fig.9) a broken illusion (Västerbottens Folkblad, 27/10/68). The journal Se published an article on 17/10/1968 with the provocative title “Idiocy in the wilderness”. The inquiry contained declarations from a number of inhabitants of Svappavaara. Among others, Viktor Ringholt, a social democrat and only member of Kiruna city council from Svappavaara, claimed that all the decisions were taken without consulting the villagers and that their suggestions were never listened to. The article attacks directly Erskine’s architectural and planning choices: the high density of the settlement in a place with the lowest cost for plots is nonsense, renting an apartment is as expensive as in Stockholm, the widespread use of concrete is sad and depressing, the apartments have insufficient insulation and are cold. Ormen Långe is described as a building were people do not want to live permanently. The inhabitants have nothing to do in their spare time and a condom dispenser is the only working service in town in the evenings. The article ends with a list of requests for the municipality of Kiruna, which is also criticised: more community services, a post office, a bus station and sport facilities. Erskine answered with a letter written on 4/11/1968 and published in the following days by a number of local journals. He wrote that he had followed with interest the debate and he addressed all the points of criticism against his project. The high construction costs are something unavoidable in northern Sweden, he chose prefab systems and producers from Norrland in order to lower the costs and also the high density of the settlement is meant to make the infrastructures cheaper and to facilitate social life. The people living in the North are not more individualistic or different from those living in the South and they also enjoy proximity and meeting others. In the end Erskine seemed still positive towards a successful outcome of his project: things can still be adjusted. In conclusion he asked for a bigger effort by Kiruna municipality and LKAB to complete his plan and provide the community with those service that he thought were more needed in the remoteness of the Arctic than in any other place. Meanwhile, with the publication of the first edition of “Gruva” (Mine) by Sara Lidman in 1968, the debate about Svappavaara had

The “Svappavaara debate” in the newspapers

Figure 11 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. Sketch of an interior with social gathering, 1969. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-0924

Figure 12 Ralph Erskine in front of Ormen Långe in 1969. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-122-1191-02 23

become a national issue. Her inquiry book unveiled the dramatic situation of Swedish miners. The remoteness and lack of services of Svappavaara, where the mine opened and workers had to move in before most of the facilities could be completed, became a symbol of the exploitation of Swedish miners. In an interview from the book, Ormen Långe is defined as “godless yellow corporate housing” (Lidman, 1969, p.60). The journalist Olle Bengtzon joined the debate on 23/3/69 on Expressen. (fig.10) His article entitled “The model town became a scandal” defended Erskine’s vision and called LKAB, Kiruna municipality and HSB for their responsibilities. The latter two had to answer for the interrupted development of Svappavaara, the former for the mismanagement of the buildings. This article was the occasion for Erskine to visit Svappavaara and realise how far the situation was from his vision. The pictures taken during this trip show his disappointment in finding Ormen Långe isolated from the rest of the village, (fig.11) his plans for a direct connection between the inner road and the school discarded, with even the door towards the school padlocked by HSB. (fig.13) A similar position was taken by Sydsvenska Dagbladet Snällposten on 24/12/1969 but on the same page the journal titled: “An environment gloomy enough to rise the strike”. It was precisely in Svappavaara that on 9/12/1969 a wildcat strike erupted and rapidly spread among the miners in Kiruna and Malmberget. The so-called Great Miners’ Strike contributed to attract even more the attention of the national press to Svappavaara. A direct causal nexus was claimed or suggested between the problematic built environment, the poor living conditions of the workers and the origin of the strike. The village became known as the “strejkbyn” or “strejksamhället” (the strike village or the strike community). Many articles focused more on sensationalism, such as the piece on Aftonbladet on 10/12/69, (fig.14) others tried to give a broader political analysis and explanation. Bengtzon wrote again on Svappavaara, “the ideal town that was sabotaged” (Expressen, 4/1/1970): the unsuccessful expansion of the village and the inability to improve its conditions were not a unique case in Sweden; the consequences should have been a warning for other administrations and developers towards a more decent community planning. A strong attack against Erskine and his architecture came from the journal of the Swedish Architects Association (Arkitekttidningen, No 2,3, 1970). The journal mocked the motto of Erskine’s entry in the competition for Svappavaara’s town plan: “Ansikte mot Söder” (Facing the South) became “Ansikte mot produktioner” (Facing the production). The role of the architects in this context was contested as they contributed with their visions to facilitate the exploitation and dehumanisation of workers by creating “antisocial living environments”. Svappavaara was described as “a labour camp with formal qualities” and Erskine and the other participants to the competition accused of superficially focusing their attention on design and aesthetic issues rather than questioning the ethical legitimacy

The “Svappavaara debate” in the newspapers

Figure 13 Ralph Erskine finds the door towards the school padlocked. Ormen Långe, 1969. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-122-1193-01


of such an exploitative human settlement. ArkDes collections preserve a copy of the article with notes by Erskine: “Dogmatic” is his recurring comment. (fig.15) After the end of the strike, the journals rarely focused on Svappavaara. An interesting episode when some more articles were collected happened in 1973. After a study trip visiting the communities of northern Sweden, the students of the department of art history in Lund organised and exhibition to document their travel. Erskine loaned documentation from his projects and was invited to give a lecture in Lund. Talking about the expansion of Svappavaara, he complained about his vision being completely misunderstood and mismanaged and confessed that he had even thought that it would have been better to never start the construction at all, if the result had to be so compromised. The echo of his words, amplified by the press, reached Svappavaara. Viktor Ringholt took the initiative to send Erskine a letter and invite him to Svappavaara on behalf of the local Socialdemocrats’ association to give that presentation to the people that had experienced living in its creations. The letter is documented by an article on NSD (“Brev till Ralph Erskine: Kom upp till Svappavaara.” 9/3/1973) and is preserved in ArkDes archives, dated 7/3/1973, together with the following mail exchange and notes from a phone call between the two. In his last answer to Ringholt, Erskine accepted and wrote that it would be really meaningful for him to have these conversations, but in an informal and private form, without press or other observers. In the end, Erskine’s visit did not happen but an event was organised instead with delegates of LKAB and the municipality, as reported in an NSD article on 28/11/1973. The news of the day was not anymore Erskine’s architecture, though, but the negative forecasts regarding the economic conjuncture. LKAB crisis years were about to come, with dramatic consequences for Svappavaara. The eventual visit to Svappavaara by Erskine led anyway some journalists in enquiring on how the living conditions changed over time. An interesting interview was given by Elsy Bäcklund to NSD on 10/7/1973, as this gives us the perspective of a woman with her children about life in Ormen Långe at the time. Having lived there for a long time, she believes that the situation is much better if compared to the past: community services and facilities have in the meantime improved in Svappavaara. She is not so happy about the asphalted playgrounds and, if she could meet Erskine, she would be curious to ask him about the large concrete boxes, since she cannot really believe that they were meant to grow plants and vegetation along the internal street! A different opinion is given by Ringholt, interviewed on 18/12/1974 by Dagens Nyheter, five years after the beginning of the strike. He also recognises the improvements in community services, but in his opinion they are too slow. He still does not like Ormen Långe and reports complaints about the noise and the dirtiness of the indoor street, which is used by people to hang around and drink beer. According to him the situation was better in the new apartment blocks in the neighbourhood Solbacken, “that we built since we ignored Erskine’s plan”. Those apartment blocks are today emptied and abandoned.

Is Ormen Långe cultural heritage?

The crisis that hit LKAB’s business from 1975 lead to the decision to end mining activities in Svappavaara in 1982. The impact of the decision on Svappavaara was dramatic: with a lack of jobs and raising unemployment, many decided to leave the village and move away. But, soon, the shrinkage of population was compensated by newcomers: the first migrants came from Chile and Iran in 1984, followed by Eastern Europeans after 1989 and by people from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. According to a former teacher of the school I have met, by the 1990s Svappavaara had up to 18 different nationalities among its inhabitants and immigrants counted up to 20% of the population of the village. Ormen Långe was used in those years as a refugee camp. It is generally thought that migrants and refugees contributed in saving the village in those difficult years and it would be meaningful to know more about it. Their role in shaping a new and diverse identity of Svappavaara deserves further investigation and research. It is probably not a coincidence if the definitive decline of Ormen Långe started when 70 refugees from Kosovo were transferred from the building in 1999. The eastern half of the building was left empty and unheated and Kirunabostäder, now owner and manager of the building, asked permission for demolishing it. Meanwhile in 1995 Ormen Långe and the single-family villas had been included by Norrbottens Museum in the inventory of Svappavaara’s buildings and cultural environment (Nelje et al., 1995). They are therefore part of the area of national interest for cultural value of Svappavaara established in 1997, which describes them as having “high architectural values” (Riksantikvarieämbetet, 1997). In order to save the building from demolition, in 1999, a number of scholars from the art history department of Umeå University sent a request to the County Administrative Board for listing Ormen Långe as a monumental building (Berg et al., 1999). The request describes accurately the significance of the building for the history of community building and society, its architectural and aesthetic values, its interest even internationally for the history of architecture. In 2000 an assessment of the cultural-historical value of the building by Norrbottens Museum (Engström, A. 2000) followed to address the request and Ormen Långe was found worthy of the declaration as monumental building (byggnadsminnesförklaring).

Previous spread: Figure 14 Clipping from Aftonbladet, 10/12/69. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-0292-03

Next spread: Figure 15 Clipping from Arkitekttidningen, No 2, 1970 with notes by Ralph Erskine. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-0292-04


The assessment recognised not only the high architectural, technical and aesthetic qualities of the building and its social and historical value, it also underlined the integrity of the building in its original forms, that it had become one of the symbols of Svappavaara and that the younger generations identified themselves with Ormen Långe. To support the request, it was also mentioned the recent declaration as monument of the residential neighbourhood designed by Erskine in Gyttorp. A series of protection and preservation measures, both for the apartment block and the villas area, were proposed. Unfortunately all these motivations were not considered valid enough by the County Administrative Board. It was found that the building was part of an unfinished project and, being isolated by the context it was designed for, had become a foreign element to the environment. For this reason it was assessed that the culturalhistorical value was not high enough to justify the declaration. It was anyway added that valuable buildings could also be protected by a municipal detail plan (Lagerstam & Wännström, 2000). But neither this form of protection was ever put in place and, as a consequence, the permission of demolishing the building was agreed on 26/10/2009. The eastern half of the building was finally torn down in the summer 2010. Ten years after that unfortunate event, the integrity of Ormen Långe has been compromised further by some (necessary?) maintenance choices, such has the substitution of the original windows and doors, the metal cladding of the chimney and the renovation of the interiors of many apartments. Much of its qualities and values are still there, though, and what went lost in integrity will soon be gained back in terms of unicity. When the neighbourhood Ortdrivaren and the apartment block ironically known as Idioten in Kiruna will be demolished, Ormen Långe, and the single-family houses of Svappavaara will remain the only buildings designed by Erskine in the whole municipality and the most extensive and significant surviving example of the application of his schemes for modern Arctic towns. Even if profoundly changed with the passing of time, or maybe exactly because of the meaning that many of those changes have added to it, I think it is definitely time for the whole work of Erskine in Svappavaara to have its unquestionable values acknowledged and to obtain some form of, if not formal protection, at least recognition and valorisation. One of the objectives of my project was to increase the awareness of the value of this architectures and for the whole duration of my fellowship I have been in contact with Clara Nyström, the municipal conservator of Kiruna, and discussed with her how to ensure a meaningful future to Ormen Långe, to the single-family houses and to the rest of the work of Erskine in the municipality.

Reactivating the public spaces of Ormen Långe

Figure 16 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Plan of the first floor, stairwells 1 and 2, 1964. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2714-03

Figure 17 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. Plan and sections of the staircase to the school and the town centre, 1964. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-2714-02 33

The reactivation of the public spaces in the ground floor of Ormen Långe has been the most challenging part of the project. The planned activities have been deeply affected by the restrictions caused by the covid-19 crisis and the possibility to organise public events and workshops was limited. The remaining rooms designed by Erskine for public use have been surveyed and inspected and, after discussion with Kiruna Bostäder and Kiruna Kommun, specific places where to start future actions have been identified. A particularly significant area has attracted our interest: the bottom part of the building towards the school. Here is a room that in the original plans is marked by Erskine as “office” and that is at the moment empty and not in use. (fig.16) It is at the first floor because in this point the building and the inner road follow the shape of the terrain. An accurately designed staircase in concrete with a wooden balustrade and a simple metal railing connects the two levels. (fig.17) Most of the original details and elements are still preserved but today the staircase is completely blocked by a planked wall that, according to what I was told, was added when half of the building was demolished. (fig.18) This was a crucial connection point in Erskine’s plan for Svappavaara, as here Ormen Långe would have joined through an indoor passage with the multifunctional building hosting the city centre. In the plans of Ormen Långe we can see that the connection was planned on two levels: on the lower floor a direct passage to the car parking, on the upper floor the connection to shops, public services and the school. Early design proposals for the city centre and the school building show that all these buildings were still thought in continuity in 1963/64. (fig.19) Not only these details and indications testify the importance that Erskine gave to this space. We also know from journal articles and a picture from his visit to Svappavaara in 1969 how disappointed was he in finding the door towards the school padlocked by HSB, which was managing the building at the time. (fig.13) Another interesting common space is the room in the ground floor between the staircases 3 and 4. Today it is used as a workshop by the caretakers of the building and it is not accessible by the tenants but, according to Erskine’s drawings, it was thought as a room to be rented out. It is the last surviving of a series of three spaces that should have given variation to the long indoor road, both

Reactivating the public spaces of Ormen Långe

Figure 18 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. The staircase today is blocked by a planked wall, 2020. Photo: Andrea Luciani 35

in terms of shape and functions. (fig.4) The largest and most interesting of them, today demolished, was the playroom between staircases 7 and 8, which is sometimes described in documents and articles as an indoor square. Outside this room are also the “concrete boxes” meant by Erskine as an indoor green space with plants and vegetation but, to my knowledge, never used for the purpose. The vision, shared with Kiruna Kommun and Kiruna Bostäder, would be to give back these spaces to the tenants and involve them in defining new uses and functions for them, together with other actors in Svappavaara, such as the school and Svappavaara Hembygdsgård. With limited possibility of physical meeting, due to the distance and to the consequence of the pandemic, the virtual space took the place of the real public space. Svappavaara has a Facebook group with almost 800 members, which is actually around the double of the estimated population of Svappavaara in 2019. Among the members of the group are not only current inhabitants of the village, but also many persons that grew up in Svappavaara and left or people that have lived or worked there for a short period of their lives. Posting contents to this page (and also to the page of the Hembygdsgård) was a very powerful tool to introduce the project to the community, to provide me with contacts among the inhabitants and to promote meetings and events. Contents such as documents, old pictures and journal articles, materials discovered during my research in the archives, were shared in the page to raise interest and spark the debate. The aim was also to make more accessible this information and resources that would be otherwise hardly reachable for the locals and the other people interested. Between October and November my posts generated more than 360 reactions and comments among the members of the group and allowed me to collect information, experiences and stories about living in Svappavaara in the past, especially as children. Reading these comments and reactions made me realise how changed were the feelings towards Ormen Långe and Erskine’s work if compared with what I found in the documents from the 60s and the 70s. Ormen Långe and the villas have become a valuable and valued element in the history and identity of Svappavaara, something that is seen with affection, nostalgia and also regret for the decision to tear down part of the building. As a conclusion to this process and also to my fellowship, there was also the intention to organise a workshop in the “office” room of Ormen Långe which, thanks to the comments posted on Facebook, I discovered being used in the past as a party room by the tenants of Ormen Långe. The idea was to continue the process of democratisation and sharing of the archive materials and to use copies of drawings, documents and old pictures to collect information and experiences on the different public spaces and to start a sort of collective history of Ormen Långe. It would have been also the opportunity to involve the current tenants and collect their ideas and proposals on how the room could be used by them as a common social space. Unluckily the event has not taken place yet due to the covid-19 restrictions.


Figure 19 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. Study for the connection of the town centre with Ormen Långe and the school, 1963. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-17-4258-01


In these months I have approached my fellowship as a great opportunity and as a relevant and important step within a long-term process. I was aware that six months were a limited period of time for the ambitious objectives I have set as well as I am aware now that there is still a lot to be investigated, explored and shared. For instance, I have been always fascinated by the way Erskine’s villas have coevolved with their owners and users, sometimes with paradoxical and dazing outcomes. (fig.20-21) Another topic I would like to explore more is, as abovementioned, the role of immigrants and refugees in shaping the contemporary identity of Svappavaara and in contributing in defining the future of the community. It is probably a work that I cannot do by myself and for which I would need specific competences and insights from other persons. In this sense, during the project I have enjoyed the cooperation and support from several people and various institutions. The personnel of Kiruna Bostäder has shown interest in my ideas and proposals and has allowed me to enter and use some spaces in Ormen Långe. With Clara Nyström from Kiruna Kommun I have enjoyed discussing the legacy of Erskine in Kiruna municipality and how Ormen Långe and Ortdrivaren could hypothetically share a common future. It was also discussed the opportunity to include Ormen Långe and Svappavaara in an ongoing project at Norrbottens Museum on the documentation of 20th century society in the region. In the final period of my fellowship I had the chance to appreciate how collaborative former and current inhabitants of Svappavaara have been with me, both in the virtual and in the real world. I am particularly thankful to the teachers of the school of Svappavaara who have been very supportive. I feel the need to acknowledge all these persons and, last but not least, the amazing people I met at ArkDes. The situation in Svappavaara is continuously evolving: LKAB has recently reopened the mine and the economy of the village is thus improving. Nevertheless it must be considered that the workers’ mobility has radically changed today and having a functional community close to the productive site is no longer required by industry. Commuting from Kiruna or the villages nearby is much easier and common, when not flying-in/flying out from elsewhere far away. If compared with the 1960s, Svappavaara has expanded


Figure 20 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. Sketch of a pedestrian street with terraced houses, 1964. Photo: Björn Strömfeldt. ArkDes Collections ARKM.1986-122-1145

Figure 21 Ralph Erskine. Svappavaara. View of a street with terraced houses today, 2020. Photo: Silvia Colombo.

Next spread: Figure 22 Ralph Erskine. Ormen Långe. View of the south elevation today from the school, 2020. Photo: Andrea Luciani 39

in space but, paradoxically, the number of inhabitants decreased back to the level of the years before the mine opened. Solbackarna, the apartment blocks built in the 1970s ignoring Erskine’s plan, are today desolately empty and abandoned. On the contrary, despite the problems still existing with its maintenance and management, the last time I have been to Ormen Långe, only one apartment was left empty and was ready to be rented out. Although the difficulties I have encountered in establishing the first contacts, my meeting with the community of Svappavaara has probably been the most gratifying experience during the fellowship. I have met a living, supporting and active community with which I hope to continue the path that I started with the ArkDes fellowship, and to continue sharing stories and knowledge about the place they live in and feeding my passion for the modern built heritage of their community.


Berg, A., Martilla E.K., Pettersson, L., Holmqvist, K., Andrèn, B-M. & Eriksson A-C. 1999. Angående byggnadsminnesförklaring av Ormen Långe, Bergsmannen 1, Svappavaara, Kiruna Kommun. Länsstyrelsen i Norrbottens Län dnr 221-11374-99. Brunnström, L. 1982. Ralph Erskine i Svappavaara. Umeå universitet. Egelius, M. 1988. Ralph Erskine, arkitekt. Byggförlaget. Engström, A. 2000. Bedömning av kulturhistoriskt värde och förslag till skyddsföreskrifter Ormen långe, kv Bergsmannen 1, Svappavaara, Kiruna stad, Jukkasjärvi socken. Norrbottens museum dnr 2000/0677. Länsstyrelsen i Norrbotten Län dnr 221-11374-99. Erskine, R. 1963. Subarktisk Elementarbok, Att Bo, 2, 33-50 Lagerstam, L. & Wännström, B. 2000. Byggnadsminnesförklaring av Ormen Långe, Bergsmannen 1, Svappavaara, Kiruna kommun. Länsstyrelsen i Norrbottens Län dnr 221-11374-99. Lidman, S. 1969 (& Uhrbom, O. photographer). Gruva. Aldusserien. Maudsley, A. 2020. The architect who claimed the Arctic. In D. Golling, C. Mínguez Carrasco, C. (eds.) Kiruna Forever. Arkitektur Förlag, ArkDes (pp.123-127). Mínguez Carrasco, C. 2020. Kiruna Forever. Relocating a city in territories of extraction. In D. Golling, C. Mínguez Carrasco, C. (eds.) Kiruna Forever. Arkitektur Förlag, ArkDes (pp.32-38) Nelje, K., Persson, C. & Sidmalm, T. 1995. Svappavaara. En Inventering av bebbygelse och kulturmiljöer. Norrbottens Museum Arkiv, fold. Svappavaara, Vol. FOBC: 4. Riksantikvarieämbetet 1997. Riksintressen för kulturmiljövården – Norrbottens län (BD). Dokument uppdaterat 2020-10-02. Accessed on October 25, 2020,

Om ArkDes forskning och utveckling ArkDes har i uppdrag att bedriva forskning och öka kunskapen kring det byggda och gestaltade ur samhällets och den enskildes perspektiv. ArkDes Fellowship är ett av flera projekt som syftar till att uppfylla detta och att stärka ArkDes som forskarmiljö. Enheten ArkDes Think Tank ansvarar för genomförandet av ArkDes Fellowship och inom enheten görs dessutom kontinuerliga analyser och djupdykningar i områden där kunskapsglapp eller målkonflikter identifierats. Temat för år 2020 har varit Vår gestaltade livsmiljö och det lockade 75 sökande bland praktiker, forskare, konstnärer och kommunikatörer. Totalt kom tre gästforskare; Katja Rosenlind, Andrea Luciani och Camilla Schlyter, utvalda av en internationell jury, till ArkDes under en sexmånadersperiod. Deras projekt har på olika sätt adresserat temat Vår gestaltade livsmiljö och identifierat aktuella utmaningar och möjligheter som våra städer står inför. ArkDes Fellowship innebär att ArkDes bjuder in externa forskare och praktiker att utveckla ny kunskap som gynnar dagens och framtidens gestaltade livsmiljöer.