Snøhetta’s remarkable rise to success is based on devotion to the profession, a collective way of working and a genuine belief in the importance of good architecture.
It’s tempting to call Snøhetta a fantastic success story. Architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, who trained at the Graz University of Technology in Austria, graduating in 1985, is one of the partners and original founders of the firm, which today has over 100 employees in Oslo. He talks about the firm’s ideology, organisation and working methods.
Jan Carlsen: Snøhetta has an international image from more than one point of view, and I’ll come back to this, but first I’d like to ask you: Was the basis for this global profile laid as early as 1989? When you were just a small firm, newly established in Oslo, and went to Los Angeles, rented premises and equipment, and designed your entry for the international competition for the new Alexandria Library in Egypt? Which you so sensationally won after a hard battle with architects from all over the world?
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen: We were young and confident and wanted to put ourselves to the test by entering a major international competition, so this was what you might call a flying start. Until then, we had only come second or third place in competitions and purchases in some national competitions.
We rented a flat consisting of three rooms and a kitchen in downtown LA, and there we worked and ate and slept, and we rented all our drawing equipment from the local film industry. The foundation for Snøhetta was indeed laid then, in 1989, but what really counted was our own determination and the help we received in the years after we had won the competition for this legendary library.
JC: One of the other competitors tried to steal the project from under your nose.
KTT: Yes, the Italians were certainly on the offensive; they really wanted the library, and they tried to trick their way to the commission. But thanks to the resolute initiative of several individuals, including Norway’s woman prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the project went to us. But only by a very slight margin – the project could just as well have gone to the Italians. In the end it was an elegant effort by our supporters that decided the issue.
The Opera House in Oslo was inaugurated about 20 years later. It was these two buildings – these two international victories – that placed Snøhetta on the architectural map. But you have to remember that we didn’t suddenly come into the spotlight; it took five years – from the opera competition win in 2000 – before we began attracting so much attention. And then when the Opera was finally completed, and inaugurated in April 2008, we knew we had finally arrived.
JC: In spite of your strong international image, Snøhetta has often been called a modern Norwegian firm. How do you explain this paradox?
KTT: It’s not a paradox; Norwegian contemporary architecture is very international. But having said that, the name Snøhetta has played a role, with its associations with Norway’s snow-capped mountains and the mighty Dovrefjellet. And also the firm’s address is in Oslo – we haven’t left the country – we pay our taxes in Norway and are a completely Norwegian private limited company.
Another factor that enhances our national profile could be the fact that in our projects we seek a unity between architecture and landscape. This interplay between the building and its natural surroundings has helped to shape our identity – this isn’t the case in every country.
The accessibility of architecture
JC: What about the social aspects?
KTT: The best and most popular architecture always has an element of sound social democratic ideology; buildings should be as public as possible. In my view, the ideal is a building with many different entrances and unlimited accessibility, like a park.
I’m talking here about the horizontality of architecture, about generosity, openness towards the users. Public buildings take up a lot of ground space, and so they should. The potential inherent in flat architecture has always preoccupied Snøhetta.
“The best and most popular architecture always has an element of sound social democratic ideology.”
JC: You’re thinking of how people love being able to walk on the roof of the Oslo Opera House, and the intimate relationship between the building and the water?
KTT: And the Library at Alexandria. Both these cultural buildings have public functions and we’ve given them a horizontal, inviting form. They’re inclusive.
There’s a risk that a building can act as a physical barrier, which in turn creates a mental barrier. In Snøhetta we often talk about the unity between body and mind, and this symbiosis is valid both for architecture and for the way it is perceived. One of architecture’s most vital characteristics is its sensuality.
JC: In your work, how important are the metaphors from nature that many people associate with your firm, like the parallel between the Opera House and an iceberg?
KTT: People are free to interpret us in any way they want, it’s not up to Snøhetta to decide how the completed building should be perceived. But it would be wrong to say that the design process is driven by such motives. Qualified architecture critics and other professionals should at least know better than that.
White marble doesn’t automatically express an iceberg. We could just as easily have been thinking of the smooth rocky slopes on the coast when we decided on the form of the Opera House and the way it fits in with the fjord landscape.
Wait before you put pen to paper
JC: Can you describe the most important creative working methods that Snøhetta uses in the initial conceptual design phases of a project?
KTT: As I mentioned above, we have a special focus on two parameters: Horizontality and an openness in our way of working. The work of an architect is too complex and demanding for one person alone, and that’s why we concentrate on team-building and try out different processes of cross-disciplinary cooperation.
The keyword is interaction, or ”transing”, which means transpositioning between different fields of expertise. It’s a little like an orchestra where the members exchange instruments during the rehearsals, try out new things, experiment, and then go back to their own instruments when the concert begins.
But the whole thing usually starts as group work in a workshop setting. The atmosphere is a mixture of extremely concentrated interaction and hilarious jokes; it’s important to loosen the knots that are blocking creativity. You have to be alert the whole time, incredibly focused, and make decisions at the right moment.
JC: And what do you do then?
KTT: There’s one particular method we use, and that’s before the actual designing starts: We make an in-depth analysis. Sound architectural work requires a high level of expertise. At Snøhetta we try to do a thorough job before we start on the actual design. There’s a lot of intense discussion before we draw a single line; and it takes a long time before the design – the aesthetic expression – is decided.
And during this phase it’s especially important to be alert, to catch an innovative idea on the wing, because a brilliant concept can be hidden in a casual remark or a sudden leap of association.
“A brilliant concept can be hidden in a casual remark or a sudden leap of association.”
Architects’ methods have changed a lot during the last 20 to 30 years; the work has become more professionalised. The person who produces the first drawing has a lot of influence. That’s why we deliberately keep to diagrams in the early phases.
When I was a student working with the architect Ralph Erskine in Stockholm, the situation was completely different. A lot of the design was based on intuition, spontaneous solutions; you arrived at a coherent solution by working through a series of drafts. We don’t work like that any more.
JC: After you won the competition for the 11th September pavilion on Ground Zero in 2004, I understand that the social-democratic model was quite difficult to follow in your ”Norwegian” branch office in New York, headed by your partner Craig Dykers. Is this correct? Are you an ambassador for exemplary Norwegian working conditions abroad?
KTT: Yes, it’s more difficult to run the office in a typically Snøhetta way in the US than it is here at home. For example, it’s difficult to get Americans to understand that you’re allowed to take a holiday, to work no more than nine hours a day, take maternity leave and so on. These benefits are self-evident to us Scandinavians, but the people at the New York office have a guilty conscience when they’re not at work; they’re trained to be at the drawing board around the clock.
Our argument is that an architect needs rest, fresh impulses and inspiration, in order to stay creative year after year. Such clashes between cultures can easily arise when you transfer the social-democratic model to other countries.
Reform movements and the work of an architect
JC: Snøhetta’s team consists of architects from many different countries. How does this ”brotherhood”, this cosmopolitan aspect, influence the working environment at the office and the architecture you produce?
KTT: Currently there are around 106 employees from 16 countries, and this ethnic and cultural mix expands everyone’s horizon. It makes us better at listening to one another, we pay more attention to each other in this kind of productive fusion. A lot of the dialogue is in English, and this diversity creates a lot of exciting and unexpected connections. The cross-disciplinary composition of the office has the same effect.
JC: You’ve appointed an ethics council at the office, and you consult for example Amnesty International in certain difficult cases. Can you give some examples of conflicts with professional ethics and other professional issues that can arise when you’re working on projects in other countries?
KTT: In principle, working is just as difficult and just as easy almost anywhere in the world. When we’re working in a particular country we first try to discover similarities with our own culture, so that we understand the differences better. For example, the US is neither worse nor better in this respect; our American colleagues have high professional integrity and make a great effort to create high-quality, socially responsible architecture.
But there are countries with undemocratic governments, capital punishment, discrimination against women, lack of freedom of expression, and other violations of human rights. Obviously it’s easy to get your hands dirty when you take on a project in such conditions.
But take Saudi Arabia. Even in that country there are movements to improve social conditions, voices claiming that liberal reforms are in line with Islam. Should we not support such movements? Maybe the changes are only small and gradual under the rule of the conservative Sharia elements, but still one must hope that cooperation and dialogue make a difference.
JC: So architectural activities can have a diplomatic, foreign-policy dimension?
KTT: Refusing all commissions from countries like this would undermine their positive ambitions. But we’ve had long, intense discussions about this, and if we do refuse to take on a commission we make our reasons very clear.
When we agreed to design the Alexandria Library, we were told by a lot of people that Egypt is not a democratic country, that half of its citizens are illiterate and that the costs of the building would make huge inroads in the country’s resources. But today the Library’s reading rooms are packed, and children and young people have free access to literature and cultural activities. Also this library, which also attracts tourists, has helped both the authorities and public opinion in Egypt to understand more about what can be done through good architecture.
JC: There are huge differences between the desert landscape of Saudi Arabia and the Norwegian mountains and valleys.
KTT: The Saudi Arabians are just as deeply attached to their landscape and their places as we Norwegians are to ours, and this makes it possible to exchange views and share experiences. The problem is that Saudi Arabia is a young nation that has skipped the civilising era of industrialism; the country went straight from a nomadic culture to an information society, and of course this has created an enormous generation gap. Obviously, with this kind of polarisation the ethical complications can be serious.
“We’ve said no for ethical reasons to a number of commissions.”
On the other hand, we’ve said no for ethical reasons to a number of commissions. For example, the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and the military museum in Abu Dhabi, although the reasons were different.
The challenge of China
JC: Would Snøhetta consider a commission in China to be a stimulating challenge?
KTT: If it was the right project, we would say an unconditional yes, it would be a pleasure. We’ve already received invitations from China, but the time schedules were too tight and we had to say no. They were in large cities that were expanding rapidly, and obviously in these cases a project is sometimes based on rushed decisions and unpromising conditions from an architectural point of view.
But China is a fantastic country, I’ve been there many times. So it would be a great honour for a Norwegian firm of architects to have the opportunity to design a major project in the Middle Kingdom.
JC: Do you think there are any questions I haven’t asked in this interview?
KTT: You could ask: ”What are your plans for the future?”
JC: What are your plans for the future?
KTT: We want to further develop a concept we started about 20 years ago, when we were designing the Alexandria library: Increasing the breadth of expertise of our staff and concentrating on more workshop-oriented production. I’m thinking of the possibility of combining digital and analogue processes.
The challenge for architects today is to extend their working methods from computers to physical, tactile objects, for example by modelling and prototyping.
“The risk is that if you work only with computers it results in a narrow style.”
We have to start using a lot of different tools and not get stuck in digital working methods.
The risk is that if you work only with computers it results in a narrow style because predictable design is inherent in this tool. We must be brave enough and innovative enough to examine all the creative possibilities in the repertoire of our profession.