Updated: Dec 23, 2022
The Ice Hotel in Sweden is something that many people will have heard of. It's an amazing venue, in an incredible location, but when you really consider going to visit suddenly questions spring to mind about what this actually involves.
Most of your practical questions can be answered through a Wikipedia search or dozens of YouTube videos, but as a lighting designer the questions we have are not well catered for. So we took the leisurely 600km train ride North from Umea (which is already 600km north of Stockholm) to Jukkasjärvi; home of the Ice Hotel. The venue sits immediately adjacent to the glacial Torne River, containing some of the purest and most delicious water the world has to offer (yes, delicious water).
For context, the hotel is split into three camps. There are some traditional wooden cabins, as the river is popular with rafting in the summer months, then there’s the 365 Hotel, a permanent structure housing the Ice Bar and a dozen or so ‘permanent’ rooms which opened in 2016.
Lastly but not least, for the purists, there’s the Ice Hotel. For over 30 years this has been built and rebuilt and everything is made from either ice, snow or snice (a more consistent and reliable compacted snow ice mixture used to form the main structure) extracted from the crystal clear and very frozen Torne River.
As an architect or an engineer you could quietly obsess over the choice of parabolic arches and wall thicknesses, ice column spacings or the easily workable, gravity defying qualities of ‘snice’. But as lighting designers we had our own questions about how you light such a structure.
At this stage I’ll point the Ice Hotel was also not yet open, we had taken a 600km punt on arriving, calling a friend of a friend and asking for a bit of a behind the scenes tour to see how you design a lighting scheme for an ice hotel and they did not disappoint. Within 30 minutes of checking in there was a knock at the door and John Petterson arrived with hard hats and high vis jackets as if this whole idea had been planned for months.
The Main Hall - A work in Progress
Upon entering the main hall through the reindeer skin clad doors, we’re immediately struck by the generous height of the vaults and precision of the structure, but our host quickly points out that the precision can be short lived within the rooms themselves, and guest artists including yacht designers and lighting designers alike have previously fallen foul of these expectations of structural tolerances with their laser measurers and their intricate lighting details. This is a moveable feast, ‘the rooms can move or sink up to half a meter during the season due to the heat generated from the occupants’ says Petterson (if you’re a structural engineer you’d best ignore that bit).
Corridors & 'moulds' which are used to shape the ice and snow structures.
John invites us to the lighting command centre, a fantastically quaint wooden hut 150 meters from the hotel itself. It's a site hut come workshop that has clearly evolved over the 30 years for this specific function. I'm looking around at of shelves teeming with electronic inventory, looms of wire, chainsaws & a countdown clock to opening day whilst I rattle off my list of questions.
‘Why don't you use fibre optics?’ We do occasionally but they tend to crack and don’t bend so well at -25 Celsius.
‘What happens to the LED’s afterwards?’ ‘We recover 99% but some can’t be retrieved.
‘Are they re-used each year’ ‘The cold has quite an impact on their CCT so they are re-binned
‘Through a spectrometer?’ ‘no through visual inspection against a master light source (see the TESTMASTER 7000000)
‘How do you run cables and power to light sources?’ With the Snice you can literally walk on the roof and drill a hole for a downlight in two minutes. If something doesn't work we can patch it up with snow or create a ledge to hide or mount a light source.
‘What's the biggest challenge?’ With 99% reflectivity on all surfaces the challenge is actually getting sufficiently low light levels. The Osram 3x 0.3W LED puck has two of the LED’s covered and the third one has several layers of neutral density film and a blue filter.
Do you use controls/ dynamic lighting? The ice doesn't respond as well to saturated RGB colour as to subtle layers of filters. Control systems are sometimes used but the amount of light being used is already so low that its incredibly hard to dim or create scenes….Typically the artists want one scene to compliment their work.
Lighting HQ where sample and mock-ups are created with filters and lenses.
I'm briefly distracted as dozen's of dogs pull sleds along the river just outside one of the windows. We’re then invited to join a mock up with two Dutch artists Edith & Wilfred on their installation of a 'chicken coop' themed room. Designs are adapting in real time, mock ups with light filters and different light sources impact decisions on where to draw the eye, they also use subtle counterpoints of warm and cool light to avoid saturation of the cones from one colour.
Anna trialling some carving techniques and lighting effects with Edith & Wilfred.
Whether or not to adorn a wall with intricate time consuming details is influenced by the direction and type of lighting that could be used. Wilfred’s made two ‘practice’ chickens, one from snice, the other from crystal clear ice. These are tested in situ before he decides on which material to proceed with working up based on the lit effect.
The working process is fascinating. Artists work from the top of the arched rooms down to the floor, they use sharpies to mark out patterns and setting out, they have often customised their own carving tools to help with spacing or repetition, smoothing and detailing that work with ice and snice and can be used when wearing thick gloves.
The concept of time is easily lost in a windowless room in a region in almost permanent darkness and we’ve been with them an hour already. We visit a couple of other artists, all of whom are hugely accommodating of our interruption (see links below) and appear to think it’s more than understandable that we would make such a trip just to see ‘work in progress’.
We’re struck by the sense of community. This is a real team. There are no drawings, there is limited time and it’s an incredibly harsh environment inside and out. It takes hard work, collaboration and experience to create these uniquely beautiful spaces; but as was mentioned (on more than one occasion) trust between the artist and lighting designer to share their vision is key. Light becomes such a critical and tangible element when working with the unique medium or snow and ice.
Most people we spoke with had completed between ten and fifteen seasons at the ice hotel. This is intimidating perhaps for anyone hoping to get involved, but testament to the sense of community and enjoyable, collaborative work atmosphere that has been built and cemented over time despite the seasonal nature of the work.
We’d love the opportunity to get involved in future seasons so we’re putting it out there and we’ll see what happens.
Thanks also to the below artists for their hospitality and click the links to see their finished articles.
Tjasa and Ulrika https://www.icehotel.com/art-design-room-service
Nicolas & Fernand https://www.icehotel.com/art-design-uv
Marjolein & Maurizio https://www.icehotel.com/art-design-air