What happens behind the scenes at Sweden’s Icehotel

f it is really cold when I am at work – below minus 30 degrees Celsius – I’m very conscious about protecting my extremities,” says Luca Roncoroni, the creative director of Sweden’s famed Icehotel.

The 47-year-old, who is one of the world’s top ice sculptors, has taken a quick break from chipping and chiselling away at this year’s designs to talk to me about what life is like behind the scenes from his base in the icy wilds of Jukkasjärvi.

“My work outfit includes two pairs of woollen socks, winter boots with thick soles, wool underwear, mitts and a buff that covers my neck and the tip of my nose. To top things off, a good hat to stop my body heat escaping.”

Roncoroni, from Lake Como in Italy, stumbled into the world of ice purely by accident having originally trained as an architect. But his career path took a twist in 1995 when he went to Oslo as an exchange student and decided to stay on after falling in love with the snowy landscape.

After trying ice sculpting for the first time in Finse, a remote village between Bergen and Oslo, he became hooked. In 2001, he landed an apprenticeship at the Icehotel and by 2019 he was appointed creative director.

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Over the years, he has built a range of impressive ice structures all over the world, and his clients include British sculptor Anish Kapoor and fashion brand Chanel.

“It is obviously most important to be comfortable in the cold,” Roncoroni says of his job, “but above anything else I think it is essential to have a desire to learn and take time to practise, practise and practise.

“As there is no school for this, the best thing to do is to learn by teaming up with a more experienced person.”

And he’s had plenty of practice at the Icehotel. This mammoth project in northern Sweden started out in 1989 as the world’s first and largest hotel made of ice and snow. Before coronavirus struck, it received between 50,000 to 60,000 visitors per year; rooms started from £500 a night and ran up to £1,030 for a deluxe suite, complete with a “warm bathroom”, sauna and bathtub.

To build this frozen playground, around 800 tons of ice are harvested from the nearby Torne River ever year in spring with the help of specialised machinery to cut and lift each of the enormous tombstone-like blocks.

“The river gives us such amazing materials to build with. Sometimes [the] builders look like they are dancing the tango with the ice blocks as they manoeuvre the giant pieces into place,” Roncoroni chuckles.

“Luckily we never run out of ice. Every year in March we harvest around 1,200 ice blocks from the Torne River when the ice thickness is about 70 to 80cm. We store these bricks in our warehouse.

“Then, the following autumn, we can start the building process with that ice.”

There are two sections to the Icehotel. One half – known as “365” – has 20 rooms. It remains intact all-year round thanks to a refrigeration plant powered by solar panels. The other side of the hotel, the original part and the one everyone comes to see, is a “pop up” concept, with each room designed by a different artist every year.

Building work on this pop up section begins in November, before the doors open in December – 11 December this year – and close in April the following year.

The main body is built out of “snice”, an opaque blend of snow and ice that’s pushed into giant moulds and left to set. The builders then use this compact material to create a warren of tunnels that lead to separate bedrooms, a banqueting hall and bar. After that, pieces of furniture, including beds and armchairs made from translucent chunks of ice, are added.

The ice is “softer than wood but harder than clay” to work with according to Roncoroni. The team uses various kinds of chisels to craft the intricate designs. And to “flatten surfaces and give the ice a frosty pattern”, they use an electric chainsaw and coarse files.

Some of the bedrooms feature dazzling chandeliers, made from more than 1,000 ice crystals that have to be individually polished by hand. To prevent the snow from melting, LED lighting is used as it does not omit heat.

“The light inside is magical,” Roncoroni says, “with different tones of blue and slight imperfections in the surfaces twinkling. The snow absorbs lots of sound so that means it’s very quiet in the rooms. It’s magical, a complete dream world.”

When the Icehotel is open, the rooms are “freshened up” each day with sculptures checked for damage and fresh snow scattered across the floors.

Roncoroni adds: “Sometimes it happens that sculptures or things in the room get damaged. If that is the case we can fix them, or make new ones, but luckily this doesn’t happen too often. The guests are very respectful.

“Later in the season, as temperatures start to change slightly, we might have to carry out more maintenance in the rooms.”

As creative director at the hotel, Roncoroni is responsible for selecting the artists who will design the frozen interiors each season.

Designers have come up with some very imaginative ideas in previous years. In 2013 one of the bedrooms was modelled on the fictional laboratory where Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life, complete with computer machinery, Tesla coils and giant laboratory beakers made from ice. And last year, to celebrate the hotel’s 30th birthday, the bar was given a fairground “on the rocks” theme, complete with a miniature rollercoaster, Ferris wheel and carousel, all delicately carved from ice.

The hotel usually runs a competition asking artists around the world to submit designs. But this year, as artists can’t get there due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the Icehotel only invited artists and designers based in Sweden to work on the rooms. Currently there are 19 teams and 35 artists working on the build project.

At this point, itching to get on with his masterpiece, Roncoroni bids farewell for the evening and heads back out into a floodlit ice field to chip and chisel away, a dream world in the making.  

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