The famous 15th Century renaissance architect, and initiator of renaissance art theory Leon Alberti, once described beauty as “that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse”.
This characterisation so neatly defines something that in our work we all strive for, and is true today as it ever was , so can you imagine how today a conversation between Leon and his fellow countryman Luca Roncoroni, the creative director of the forever altering Icehotel would go ?
I imagine the first thing that would come out of Leon’s lips would be quite cordial, after all, it doesn’t pay to be overly critical of a man holding two chain saws.
In 1989 Jukkasjärvi, was visited by a group of Japanese ice artists. The following Spring in 1990, French artist Jannot Derid held an ice exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo around the same area, but due to a shortage of rooms many of the visitors ended up sleeping in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skins…. thus the ‘Icehotel’ was born.
During my Erasmus experience in Milan I was fortunate enough to meet Luca, creative director of the original ice hotel who has kindly agreed to let the light review into his frozen world. I started by asking him how he ended up swapping the warmth of Italy for the freezing Swedish winter?
Luca – It started with the Erasmus program before we met in Milan, I was an exchange student at the design school in Oslo, where I participated in a land art program, up the mountains in Norway , organised by the Bergen school of Art. In 2002 I did my first project, my own design, and ever since 2010 I have been there every winter in different capacities. In 2019 I took over as the creative director, dealing with the artists and designers.
Chris – I worked with Anish Kapoor for the Naples Underground station so I understand how working with artists can bring its own set of unique challenges,
Luca – Its funny you mention Kapoor as it means we have something else in common, as in 2017 I worked with Kapoor on his first (and only) ice project to date in Canada, you learn a lot by working with artists of that calibre, and it was amazing to see how down to earth and open he was, super cool. Every year at the Icehotel we have 40 artists from around the world. Some of them are designers and architects so I can more relate more to their way of thinking, then we also have sculptors, painters and musicians that have a totally different background. They see the room, the space the light with completely different eyes.
Chris – I find it surprising that the architects could build these interiors as I think of more computer-based solutions nowadays. I try to push the makers of this world because I think there are so many skills that have been lost, I love to see people that can design and make what they have in their imagination. The fact you are doing it there is great.
Luca – That is one of the things that attracted me the most and kind of pulls me into this world every day. I really like to build and make stuff, I wouldn’t be able to sit all day in front of the computer, I like the fact we build it all with our own hands. The Icehotel has made it a crucial point, a core value.
Nowadays there are a lot of different ice and snow hotels throughout the world, but one of the things that keeps us apart from all the others is how we choose our artists or creative people, designers.
We have an international competition every year and pick, build 15-20 projects in a season, bedrooms, ceremony hall, ice bar and a main hall with reception area (projects are used as a general term). These buildings are what make up the whole Icehotel experience. Through this competition we have the goal that 30% of artists we choose are ‘rookie‘. People that have never worked with ice and snow .
Chris – Did you say rookie? Isn’t that a bit dangerous!? I can think of loads of good reasons not to do that, like the chain saws for one thing. Do they use chain saws?
Luca – Yes, they do, everybody goes through a course before they can use the chain saw, so we have all the kind of safety measures, and a support team of experienced artists designers. We have people from Brazil or Africa that have never touched or seen snow, the huge value in that is that they come with a completely open mind, and no restrictions. That is what keeps us a reference point with ice and snow, we renew the approach.
Chris – It sounds stressful, how do you get someone from Brazil who has never seen snow or ice to build an ice hotel, that’s madness!
Luca – You should ask them; they are the crazy ones that come!
Chris – For the lighting is there a common design approach? For example, do you use cool light to reflect the location or do you use warm light to give the guests an impression of warmth, its -5 C inside right?
Luca – Inside it is a stable temperature of -4.0 to -5.0C outside anything up to -40C. The only requirement when you send your application is that it uses a set size of the room, just under 30sq metres and a double bed. We have no guidelines when it comes to light. No one can use foreign materials, only ice and snow, no pigment, but you can use red filters to give a warm light, or RGB to change the atmosphere. With light we have no limitations, on day one when the artists arrive in Sweden, we have a group of between 6,8 lighting designers. Every lighting designer has the responsibility for two to three rooms, so on day one they go through the project with the artists, the concept, and figure out what sort of light they want to use. They discuss the source, whether they want a warm or cool colour temperature, does it need to be static, moving and whether they need any scene setting that changes throughout the day. There are some practical implications when it comes to workload, budget, as in any project, but it is completely in the artists’ hands.
Chris – That’s interesting because I would have thought there would be an element of repetition, as the first thing I would want is for people to feel comfortable, tricking their senses by using warm light, but I guess everything is so far out of the box in order to create completely different experiences.
Luca – We have people that think the way you mentioned, and then we have the opposite case where we want to emphasise the cold. We leave it to the artists to decide, and the beauty of the material is that changes can be made. Our tolerances are a few cm and we need to be able to improvise, so we have to go with the flow.
Chris – The uniqueness of the building gives a unique approach as well, I suppose?
Luca – With all the artists I have been talking to and working with through the years, its one of the most fascinating things. The building has a completely different place in its communication and process of being. You don’t have full control. For example when you do a chair in ice, you don’t own the product in the same way, the power of the relationship is almost upside down; the ice chair, the walls, they are moving and changing. we don’t have the same power as we would normally have.
Chris – In Architecture and Design people often use the term organic, I think your Icehotel is the purest form of organic design.
Luca – Yes literally and visually, most definitely.
Chris – I imagine that the lighting design brings other problems that perhaps you would not encounter in a normal design, do you employ the same lighting design teams every year?
Luca – We have a core that has been the same; one guy that has been here for 25 years, another for 12 years. They are super-experienced in not only what sort of effects you can create but what cabling you can use. Very practical stuff. Around this core of lighting designers, we work with different people, due to the fact there is only 6 weeks of work in the year.
Chris – So the lighting designer is employed by the Icehotel and brought in as part of the team.
Luca – Yes and the process starts in May. The chief lighting designer gets the concept after the jury has selected which designs to be made, so before any ice is cut the designer is involved and starts to give feedback. We do not have a spec list for the lights, everything is done in place. Together with the artist they figure out the best design by seeing how the light reacts in practice by bringing the light source in the space. Its an organic process.
Chris – Do you use any daylight? For me it is a weird scenario because I guess the more daylight you have the more the building melts and ultimately vanishes?
Luca – Overtime the use of daylight has been going up and down. There was something of a wave of popularity in certain years, and we did have a lot of rooms such as the church, that used large ice blocks as a filter for natural light. The North of Sweden is quite extreme, so in the winter its completely dark, but by the time we get to February and March the days get very bright and long very quickly. What we have noticed, is that by the end March, the room is flooded with such strong natural light, that the work of the artist and lighting designer may be spoiled, so what most artists have figured out is that its better to use artificial light to mimic natural light, as it affords more control, and you can still maintain the same feeling all season long. We also must take into account the melting thing, as it melts at faster rates round the window.
Chris – When you think of the Icehotel the first thing I think of in this day and age is what’s the environmental impact ? Because on the one hand you could say its extremely good as its 100% recyclable, on the other hand it could be one of the worst because you build it then it just disappears. You can justify it from an artistic and architectural point of view, but how do you justify it from an environmental one?
Luca – We try to get better every year when it comes to the environment, for example a big step was to install solar panels over the production hall, so a lot the electricity we use in the buildings and in our work comes from solar energy. We use only electric equipment, and have been switching over to electric tractors, and heavy machinery, to reduce our carbon footprint.
Of course, we have room for improvement as with any other business. The material used is picked up from the river, which is between 70- 80m from where we build the hotel, so everything is super-local. The last 10 years have seen us make the process far more efficient; we build faster with less use of energy. So far, we believe we have found a good compromise, between those aspects.