What does the ice hotel partially built by a Romanian woman look like near the Polar Circle?

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The famous Icehotel in Sweden, open from December to April, has this year a room designed by a Romanian. Monica Popescu, together with her colleague Emmylou Varon, created “Dream with a Thorn” in December, built entirely of ice and snow, a deluxe art suite in ICEHOTEL 34, where the temperature never drops under -5°C.

In April 2023, architect Monica Popescu, along with 28 artists from 14 countries, was selected by the jury of Icehotel’s international design competition to build a deluxe art suite in the small village of Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. Opened in 1989 with a unique art concept, Icehotel is not only a hotel but also an ever-changing art exhibition. The building, which is rebuilt every winter, is constructed entirely from natural ice sourced from the Torne River (one of Sweden’s national rivers, still pure and pristine) and returns to its waters in the spring when it melts.

photo by Asaf Kliger

For the 34th edition in 2023, 157 candidates from 36 countries submitted proposals for a room. Monica Popescu’s concept was inspired by where she lives most of the year, Mexico: “Inspired by the ancient art of papercutting, Dream with a Thorn invites visitors to take center stage and immerse themselves in a barren landscape. Two-dimensional cacti, cut in successive layers, create the perspective we encounter on a theater stage and help tell the story. It’s a story of survival; the succulents contain precious water, as does the ice of the Torne River from which they are cut. A bare desert garden of flat surfaces that intersect to create three-dimensional objects”, was the description submitted in the design competition.

ICEHOTEL 34 has taken six intense weeks to build, with 500 tones of ice and 10 Olympic swimming pools of “snis” – a mix of ice and snow. Working on ICEHOTEL 34 started in the spring when ice blocks were harvested from the Torne River to be kept cold in the ice warehouse in Jukkasjärvi. The ice harvested in the spring has been used to make 34 the magical experience it is. Artists from all over the world – Sweden, Poland, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, France, Singapore, Belgium, Slovakia, and the UK – were selected by a thorough jury to create unique art suites and halls for guests to experience.

“This year marks the inauguration of the 34th edition of ICEHOTEL, and once again, our international artists have created something unique and spectacular. The art suites of this year showcase an incredible height of creativity and form an exciting collection of artistic dreams, expressions, and ideas. Guests this year will be captivated by art suites that evoke thoughts of fairy tales, nature and cultural tradition to name a few. I am excited to unveil ICEHOTEL 34 to all our guests from around the world,” says Marie Herrey, CEO ICEHOTEL, in a press release.

How artists are selected at the Icehotel in Sweden

Every year, from January to April, Icehotel puts out a call for artists (they can come from a variety of fields and backgrounds, they can be sculptors, designers, industrial designers, graphic designers, engineers, architects, interior designers, etc.) for the upcoming season. After the submissions close, a jury evaluates the proposals and Luca Roncoroni, Icehotel’s Creative Director, oversees contacting those selected. What follows is a period of about 6 months of planning, like any architectural project. Luca Roncoroni is the guide in this process where decisions are made on how best to bring the artist’s concept to life in ice and snow. Then comes the actual building period: “There are rules, it’s a building that’s going to be built in 6 weeks and the artists have 15 days to bring their rooms to life. There are deadlines and material limitations (certain sizes of ice or snow blocks so that they can be moved and used in the construction). But there is also flexibility and decision making on the spot, just like on a construction site when you build a regular building,” says Monica Popescu.

What challenges arise in the construction process?

As with any construction process, challenges can arise, and in the case of the Icehotel, these are primarily related to the climate and sub-zero temperatures. During the two weeks of construction, temperatures in northern Sweden ranged from -10˚C to -35˚C, when the ice becomes brittle and in danger of cracking, the gloves freeze and everything slows down: “The biggest challenges are working in the cold (we had days of -35 degrees Celsius) and the long hours of continuous physical labor over two weeks, plus the stress of meeting deadlines and delivering the finished space. Everything takes longer in the cold; the physical work takes its toll, when you’re exhausted you’re more sensitive, you worry if you’re going to finish on time, what’s left to do. You have to be aware of the rules and regulations that apply to a construction site, you have to coordinate with the lighting crew to get the lights up at the right time, you have to be careful with the power tools you have at your disposal, such as specialized ice or snow chainsaws. It can be intimidating to use power tools and always keep in mind the safety aspect, both for yourself and everyone else around you, but you have all the protective gear you need, helmet, proper cold weather clothing and footwear, gloves, goggles, chainsaw chaps, so even if you’re scared, you find the confidence to do what needs to be done,” says Monica.

Why participate in such an experience, even twice?

Monica Popescu has been selected for the second time as an artist to create a suite in the Icehotel, 200 km from the Arctic Circle. The first time was in 2012, together with her colleague Petros Dermatas from Greece, with the concept “Virgin in Space”, an idea between dystopia and utopia, a journey into space in an ice shuttle.

This year, Monica was joined in the construction of the “Dream with a Thorn” concept by Emmylou Varon, a Swedish architect of Filipino origin, with whom she worked in an architectural office in southern Sweden: “When I was selected, I had a wonderful feeling, the joy of being able to revisit an old chapter of my life: the one where I lived, studied and worked in Sweden. Working with Emmylou Varon was also a fantastic bonus, in our 2 weeks together we were able to reconnect and work side by side. It’s a magical feeling to see an idea come to life for others to explore and experience. And I even find it poetic that after a few months it all fades away, is erased, like a blank sheet of paper, and returns to where it came from, into the waters of the Torne River, never to be seen again, the only evidence of its existence being the photographs taken, but most of all the way it made people feel, the guests who visited or slept in our room at the Icehotel for a night”.

On the process of submitting a concept to the annual design competition, Monica Popescu says: “This process of finding the right idea, the one you feel you want to express, takes you out of your comfort zone, out of your work and life routine. I had just finished a paper-cutting course and was very impressed by the technique and what it could offer, how a simple, white piece of paper could be manipulated, cut, glued to tell a story. The inspiration for the concept was my surroundings – I live in a warm part of Mexico, by the sea, and my backyard has a variety of cacti and succulents, but I’m particularly fascinated by the large saguaro cacti found in other parts of the country and across the border, which have a human-like life and can live up to 100 years. So I made a sketch, built a paper model, and played with a lamp to see how the space would be perceived with light (the lighting in a room at Icehotel is integral to the design, and it helps to think about it early in the design process). Icehotel is very specific about the dimensions of the rooms (700 cm long x 450 cm wide x 380 cm high) and the bed that should go in each of them, otherwise everything is very loose and flexible.

The implementation part is a unique but challenging experience that makes you wonder why you wanted to do it in the first place, you go through a rollercoaster of feelings and emotions that culminate with the completion of the room and its delivery to Icehotel. Your whole-body aches, you say you’ll never repeat the experience again, but when the final moment comes, you start to play in your head with the idea of what it would be like to do it again, next time better. The day you’re done, it feels strange… what are you going to do now? You miss your daily routine, you feel accomplished but at the same time unfinished. And that feeling gets deeper and deeper.

But the most valuable part of this experience is the human connection. This building wouldn’t exist without the people building it. This experience wouldn’t happen if every human ‘cog’ wasn’t turning at a near-perfect pace. It is an organism with many ‘limbs’ working harmoniously together, and in the end you have this thing that makes others marvel. The builders, the lighting team, the support team, the artists, the management team, the communications and marketing team, the guests who brave the cold year after year to see what other people are creating. You belong to a community; you enjoy seeing old friends and making new ones. You bond with your teammate through the good times and the hard times, driven by the same desire to make this crazy idea a reality. Why is that? I don’t know what draws people to these endeavors. I don’t think it’s just recognition, but all of those things together, the chance to be part of something unique, to try to overcome your fears, your limitations, your prejudices. I don’t think you can go through that experience and not be drastically marked for life, whether you want to repeat it or not. It’s playing with what makes us human, reweaving the fabric we’re made of, pulling at the threads that hang and seeing what holds and what unravels.”

Born in Valcea County, Monica Popescu has studied, worked and lived in Sicily, Sweden, Egypt and Mexico. She graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest, she loves to travel and discover new places, cultures and people.

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