Really, we are not that Norwegian, says Craig Dykers, born in Germany, son of an English mother, Mexican father, raised in Texas, having his largest project in Egypt, and now living in Oslo since many years. We doesnt really represent the stereotypical architectural office, although we practise here in Oslo. You could say that our consistency comes from our inconsistency, when it comes to our design we are definitely an international team. Today we tend to identify with cultures from the rest of the world, rather than getting stuck on borders and limits to what you can or cannot do in your specific culture and country.
The office of Snøhetta is found among other depreciated offices not far away from the Central Station. To be exact, its an old whitish printing press building built at the end of the 30s. Snøhetta shares one floor with the graphic design company Pepper. And the contrast couldnt be more striking. While the ad agency sports sleek, grafite-black or bondi blue Macs on clean tables of dark wood, the architects contends with dirt-grey PC:s on desks littered with drawings and impending deadlines. The desks are placed as distinct elements within the old working areas, with an adjoining eating area where lunch is being prepared by a sturdy woman.
Kjetil Thorsen, the other of the three founders of Snøhetta, joins us for a couple of minutes before leaving for a trip southwards (Christoph Kapelle being unavailable). Kjetil assures that Norway is experiencing a great period right now in developing a building culture, which has few comparisons in history, if not in the middle age, I would say that the state of our architecture hasnt been better for a long time. We have left the one-way thinking of the 70s and 80s and we got a pluralistic attitude, and we have a terrific economic situation backing us up. Of course it could be better, I do deplore a lack of cultural consciousness within the new rich environment, it shouldnt all be about money, I hope we through the experience of architecture will be able to think of other things. And certainly the international fame of Snøhetta has also improved the status of architects at large in Norway, and Kjetil definitely discerns a specific Norwegian sensibility. That a lot of Norwegian architects has studied abroad has influenced a great deal, but we certainly dont copy trends, I would say that we got a strong national sense especially when it comes to the integration of landscape and architecture.
Kjetil runs away, and we hide away in peace and quite together with an unruly dog in an starkly coloured orange cube which serves as a conference room. Another dog is running around on the other side of the glass panel. And the long list of projects produced is amazing and ranges from projects in Osaka, Alexandria and Dubai to remote Norwegian places like Fjaler and Karmøy. In a way we avoid small projects because they tend to spoil you. In a big project you have to sacrifice in order to succeed. It requires team-effort, it has an immediate importance to the community, and it order to work it cant rely on your own ego, you need to invest a lot of consideration in the whole process.
Compared to other Norwegian offices Snøhetta consider themselves as a kind of underdog office. Although having all these big commissions going on abroad and in other places of Norway, they have not been involved in any major building here in Oslo. But that will of course drastically change with the new Opera which will be built nearby.
When scrutinising the design for the Opera in Bjørnvika, next to the Old Town of Oslo, it might be hard to believe that it was conceived rapidly in a couple of intense brain-storming hours while digging that stomping song out of the Jungle Book. There is a clear reminiscence to the Alexandra Library in the big, vast slanted slab reaching down into the bay, a kind of an intellectual envelope which allows buildings to be hid away temporarily, possibly exchanged for other solutions in the future, admitting an evolution which wont do any harm to the general design. And its hard to understand how local critics has deplored the lack of monumentality. The sloping stoneface extends a good 200 meters and is a grand statement both of architecture and landscaping. But maybe this open invitation to skate-boarders somewhat off-sets the image of bourgeois culture?
The great disc has according to Craig been designed as low as possible, so that it wont create a wall cut out of the city, supposingly linking the two parts of the city, with the Akkers Brygge at one extreme and the railway station at the other, and with the Ekeberg mountain in between. The entrance is but a fold, a crevice opening in towards the extensive interior plaza. The horse-shoed opera-saloon has been placed like nut-shell in an open environment which looks out towards the bay. On the outside the glazed lobby and the saloon cuts through the tilted plane. Public domain and working areas is clearly distinct. The more factorylike buildings assisting performers, administration and such has been located below the further back of the disk, with the possibility of replacement in the future.
Obviously Snøhetta are not content with the typical architectural artifact imposed on the environment. When I venture to deplore the condition of contemporary architecture, which wont express our contemporary culture, and even less influencing and questioning it, Craig is all ears. This slightly awkward tilt creates a room for relaxation in the urban environment, heres a stop where to pause and think about where you are. You just doesnt easily navigate through and over the building. In that sense it has an influence, this simple shift from a flat to a tilted plaza challenges your impression of what you see. Its an unusual room which craves a reaction, you really have to stop and contemplate who you are.
Another aspect of the Opera, and a recurrent theme in the projects of Snøhetta, is this blurring of the order between architecture and landscape. Craig talks about his fascination by the recent discoveries in astronomy, where the fluid nature of the universe as to the shape of the galaxies, our position, invokes a complete mind-shift. The idea is that we are not necessarily at the centre of everything, as implied in the Bible. By transposing one piece of earth from one place to another, youve got to use your mind to reassemble it, and then youre in a way part of the process yourself.
But although the form is unusual, it has nothing to do with the recurrent vogue in avantgarde architecture of today, which is to deal with degrees of uncertainties, the ambiguous worldviews of quantum physics and chaos theory. Snøhetta doesnt share the conclusion that fluidity has to ultimately expose itself in terms of fluid shapes and spaces, instead theyve focused on fluidity as a process, or as Craig succinctly puts it, as an affectation of the unconscious. Each idea for a project is experienced along a staircase where the final step is not visible and conclusions are withheld. The result is elegant but unstable.
When we met last time Craig put forward a definition of architecture which explains those slated arcs of the Opera in Oslo and the Alexandrian library, as well as the present competition entry for Bertelsmann in Abu Dhabi. Instead of seeing time as distinct separate moments, he favours the imprint being made by time passing by in a fourth dimensional way, like the path of the sun describing an arc along the sky. Its difficult to discuss geometry without also interpreting time. Time tends to be the silent partner in architectural design, relegated to roof warranties and historical orders. I like to think that, to a certain extent, the things we create are at their essence a description of time.
Nevertheless the architects at Snøhetta defines themselves as part of the modernist tradition, but in a critical way, not bound up to the perfectionism of a Richard Meyer or a Henning Larsen. The modernist craving for originality is maybe not that strong either, which might explains that Snøhetta hasnt been named after its founders, which is usually the rules among architectural offices. The idea is to remain faithful to a flat and open organisation, with a cross cultural image since quite a big portion of the staff are from abroad. The name is an apt analogy, a mountain where the landscape creates a kind of an object, a mountain top which which stands out as a very clear object in the landscape. And not to aspire too high, Snøhetta is only the second highest mountain in Norway, which nevertheless inspired Grieg to his Peer Gynt. My definition of modernism has in some sense to do with democracy, it has to do with individual choice and freedom, it has to do with the right to have our own ideas, creations of our own minds, and this would include practically anything you put forward, including the past. If its too much architecture you wont like it, some kind of relaxation has to occur, as in art. Its not about having a Starck or a Libeskind, its rather about the familiar and unfamiliar. Im willing to accept anything as long as it is careful, interesting, and responsible to you yourself and to the life of individuals.
The Karmøy Fishing Museum is an example of this concern. Craig explains that this small fishing village had experiencing a decline of their main source of income. In order to create this museum, Snøhetta avoided looking to the past and proposed a forward look, in order to create a optimistic view to the future. The solution is a simple neutral boxlike form placed as a sculpture on this little rocky hill by the coast. The concrete building is neither dominatingly imposing, or subservient to the village, but relate clearly not only to the landscape, but to the changing economic conditions. Inside the concrete floor has an epoxy finishing, which reflects the sky, letting the ocean coming into the building.
We aspired to create a contemporary identity through a modern solution. This would normally require quite a lot of money, as it often implies as perfect building as its possible to get, which this community couldnt really afford. Instead we were able to take a step backward, to let the solution grow organically, in this case into an unfamiliar modern sculpture. By involving the village people in the work, costs were held down, an example is the wall along one side of the wall where a local technique of woven screens using a native coastal bush has been used.
Karmøy might be a rare example indeed. One of the big concerns of Craig is the diminishing importance of architecture, which is largely due to the prevailing building process which has made both quality and craftsmanship suffer. The outcome may be that architecture will be the designing of image, nothing else. Architecture is disappearing as a profession to some extent, not the least because of legal aspects, its turning into just another profession of mass-consumption society. Who knows, maybe in twenty years from now well have only twenty architectural offices left, like what happens in other professions, well have the McDonalds of architecture. Nevertheless Craig claims that architecture are neither a simple commodity or only for the rich few in a Wallpaper world. Rather he claims that architecture is about adding emotional content to a building, expressions of happiness, of sadness. Here once again time is the key element. Ive been trying to define architecture for myself lately because personally I dont look at myself as an architect. I think architecture has grown into its own self-encapsulated identity, with its own rules and order which doesnt necessary have to do with life but with architecture. So in a way I try to pull myself outside of that, to make some other kind of definition. My definition these days has to do with memory, that architecture is the creation of a building which either makes, instils or has some kind of memory. And this is the key in separating architecture from other things, so for instance a building only becomes architecture if it has a memory of itself or creates a memory inside of you.
© 2001 Calimero, published in Frame, 2001