The (Most Northern) Norwegian Coal Mining Building

It’s now nearly two months ago that I put my feet on Norwegian, Arctic ground, without knowing what to expect. At least I surely know what I did not expect: I did not imagine to be impressed and learn so much by old buildings of the coal mining industry.

One of the monstrous legacies of the mining industry, the first building in the city of Longyearbyen, really kept my attention. But not because of a lack of other extraordinary architectural pieces in the town; as is the Svalbard Science Center and the Administration Building for the Governor of Svalbard, both planed by Jarmund/Vigsnaes Arkitekter. But still it hard for them to compete with Longyearbyen’s Main Mining Roapway station. There is something extremely fascinating about it that fits perfectly to the mythical frame in which Longyearbyen and whole Svalbard is embedded. I heard some people calling it “the spider building” because it resembles some sort of animal that stands on the mountain watching the town from above. Longyearbyen’s watchman? Surreal on the one hand, but hardly indispensable in the past of Svalbard at the other hand. Indispensable because it was part of a huge coal transporting network in the area in and around Longyearbyen. Some kind of a ropeway hub, where all the worked out gain got brought together.

Ropeway system

Regarding the shape and design of the building, it can easily mislead the observer. Without beeing aware of it’s function, it could appear almost like some work of Frank O. Gehry or Daniel Libeskind. Almost… but indeed it seems more modern that it is, and it seems more architecturally planned than it really was in the past.

Even if the ropeway station’s expression is very exotic, the building’s shape, orientation and materiality was more a question of functionality and financial possibility of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, that established the coal mining industry in Svalbard. Based on a massive steel construction, stretched in the four directions of the other coal mining stations and coated with metal panels, it becomes a witness of the bygone power of the coal mining industry. This sensation continues also in the interior spaces. It seems like nothing has changed in the last 100 years, like the workers just left after a long working day. The space gives a surprisingly good sense of real experience. All the old machines are still standing on their original place and underneath them, only a few wooden slats got exchanged for preventing them or any visitor to crack into the floor.

Ropeway hub    outside    inside

Longyearbyen’s hertige department did a great work in preserving this extremely complex and sensitive building, without disguising it’s age and traces of use. And indeed it seems a bit faded these days, but is it not exactly that what gives it its distinctive expression? It still maintains it’s importance for the history of Longyearbyen, it is indispensable for economy and the first reason for people moving to such an isolated place.

It is part of the last coal mine in Norway, constructed by Norwegians for Norwegians. A building, that served as a starting mark for a whole town to exist.