Snøhetta is the most famous architecture firm you’ve never heard of. Headed by Norwegians Craig Dykers (above left) and Kjetil Trædal Thorsen (right), the studio–named for a snowy peak in Norway–has brought off some of the splashiest international projects of the past two decades, from a striking revival of the ancient Library of Alexandria to Oslo’s Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, an ice-floe of a building that looks like the set of a Bond film (pictured below). They’ve won awards storied architects covet. And yet, they’re practically unknown in the United States. That’s about to change.
Next year, the firm will unveil a museum pavilion at Ground Zero. This summer, it won a commission to redesign the holiest of holy American tourist sites, Times Square. And just last week came news that the architects had beaten out Renzo Piano, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and (ex) Lord Norman Foster to extend Mario Botta’s San Francisco MoMA. (A hated building which Botta, with inadvertent perfection, once described as ?a sumo wrestler defending the city from a growing downtown.”)
Snøhetta doesn’t have a signature look. Instead, they adapt their style from project to project: They’ll bring you your very own Valhalla, and they’ll do it by consensus. Co.Design recently talked with Dykers about taking back Times Square for New Yorkers, getting married to the SF MOMA, and the joys of having beer kegs at work.
Co.Design: For readers who aren’t familiar with the firm, can you give some background? What was your big break?
Craig Dykers: Our firm began after we won an international design competition for the Alexandria Library in Egypt. That was 1989. This was a very large competition in which 1,400 different companies registered for the competition. Eventually 530 were judged from 77 different countries. And we were selected from that group. We were very young. None of us was over the age of 30. That project took about 13 years to complete.
[Two images above: The new Alexandria library]
After that, did the commissions start pouring in?
Well, it’s very nice to have such a project, and its a great way to begin a company. On the other hand, it has its drawbacks. All of our efforts had to be focused on that one commission. There was a period of time where it was very challenging for us to grow, and of course having one hit is not enough to build your future on. Eventually, we entered another international design competition — our second — for the National Opera in Oslo, Norway, and we won. As that project was finishing, we won yet our third competition. That was to design the museum complex at the World Trade Center site in New York City.
And now Times Square–another really challenging project. You must like making things hard for yourselves.
It is a very complex project, and of the projects I listed off to you, all of them are quite complicated. The national opera in Norway had been under discussion since 1885! Our specialty and why we’re able to work with all these projects is that we tend to be outward and engaging people. We like to talk to people. We like to develop our projects with a consciousness of the society we’re in. So we don’t approach design from a purely object or formal notion — and that’s why many of our designs look very different from one another. And that’s why people don’t really know who we are, because we don’t have a signature style. Our name is not even the name of a person, so there’s nobody you can point to. More people know more about our buildings than they know about who we are. The authors of a piece of architecture should be less important than the architecture itself.
What are the specific problems you’re looking in Times Square redesign how are you going about them?
Times Square has to be approachable by two widely different groups. One group is the mass-tourist/ temporary visitor — the people who want to see Times Square because they have to see it before they leave New York. The other group is made up of New Yorkers themselves, who have to move through the space on a regular basis. Currently, the space is geared primarily toward the tourists. So we want to bring it back in line as a place to be in even if you’re not a tourist.
How do you make Times Square a place for New Yorkers?
We’re going to work with traffic, because automobile traffic is a big part of the challenge, and we have to introduce, potentially, bicycle lanes. Another thing you need to do is create different zones of activity — places where larger groups can move easily and places that are constricted enough so smaller numbers of people will naturally coalesce. You segregate those people and allow different kinds of feelings, attitudes, and atmospheres in space. You can do that several ways. One is simply by watching people. We’ll do a lot of going to Times Square and documenting how people move. Another thing is looking at very subtle changes in grade that softly maneuver people without them thinking too much about it into different locations. People are domesticated creatures. We move in groups and crowds and situations in particular ways. And we simply want to design according to that.
You’ve also got this other huge project coming up–SF MoMA. What are the big challenges there?
The site itself is highly constrained and could be considered quite dark, because it’s behind a building and next to two towers that cast long shadows on the site. So we would like to create a design that works with introducing natural light to the place, fresh air and views, so that people, when they’re in the building, don’t feel like they’ve been pushed into dark corner as they experience the museum. It’s not just about creating a visceral experience to an object of art. It’s also about a place where communities and groups of people connect and social space. So we want to make it as much about the public space as the galleries.
What do you make of the original building? A lot of people think it’s awful.
Many people malign the building, and certainly you can be critical of it, but you cannot ignore that it has done a tremendous amount to setup the conditions to improve the district around it. It was a vacant, disused parking lot in a sea of monotony for many many years until Botta designed that building. It allowed the kind of anchor, around which new communities could develop, and they did.
I wonder, though: Because of the strong palette — the brick, the black-and-white stone — does it limit what you can do there?
It’s a bit like creating a marriage. If you meet someone, and you want to be with them and make a union with them, you would probably prefer that they have a strong character than no character at all. Then again, you don’t want to just copy them. So we’ll be complementary and I hope create a situation where the union is stronger than the individual parts.
What are the big differences between working in the United States and internationally?
There are different ways of understanding what an architect does. In the United States, clients like to be heavily involved in the design process and often like multiple alternatives to choose from. In Europe, where we’ve done much of our work, if you come to the table with several alternatives, they’ll say, “Why are you showing us these” We hired you to provide us the best. What are these other two things doing here?? The other thing is, in the U.S., there are much more complicated rules and bureaucracies that have to be managed as part of the building project, because litigation, insurances, and any of these things that are about law are quite heavily impacting the design process. In Norway, we have much less litigation than you do here, so it’s easier to be a little freer.
But if you’ve survived the craziness of the World Trade Center that must mean you can build anything in the states.
I?m not sure I’ve survived. I?m actually speaking to you from a coffin.
[The World Trade Center museum pavilion]
How long have you had an office in New York?
We’ve been here since 2005, but I always tell people that we didn’t get here until about six months ago, because we finally finished renovating our office and getting settled in. We’re at 25 Broadway down at Bowling Green. We have a nice place. On Fridays, it’s fun. I actually have a beer here, because we have beer on tap in kitchen.
I?m totally visiting. Is it fair to say that you’re bringing a certain Scandinavian sensibility to your architecture?
We are, but I would recommend that it not be seen as purely formal. It’s more about process. We’re consensus-oriented. We are political in terms of social causes and social issues. We like to create diversity and equality in the buildings we design and how we design them. It’s a political message as much a formal message.
What else are you working on in North America?
Quite a few things. We have two libraries–one at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Another one is the in Raleigh, North Carolina. Those are socially dynamic designs with a great deal of emphasis placed on how people communicate and collaborate. Then we have a collaborative arts school in Ohio at Bowling Green State University. We made a bird’s nest — that’s our smallest project. The idea is that the nest locks into the building blocks of a building and creates places where birds can nest in habitats that’ve been taking away from them by new buildings.
[Bowling Green State University arts school. Read our story about it here.]
Plus all your work abroad. Do you sleep?
Oh, yeah! We have a very collaborative atmosphere. In our office, we target having 50 percent male and 50 percent female. We have a rich mix of cultures, and we work as groups, which means — theoretically — we finish our work faster. And it’s not our desire or goal to be here late at night. In fact, many architects, when they hear we go home at regularish times, they’re kind of shocked. We place our internal social conditions high on our list of priorities. You can’t just design it and not do it. Hence the beer on tap.