Norway’s Snohetta architecture firm marries business savvy with artistic inspiration
Low-tech meets hi-tech in the Oslo offices of Snohetta, Scandinavia’s premier architecture firm. Housed in an open-plan former warehouse on the edge of the Oslo fjord, the firm greets visitors with an improvised light fixture, comprised of 600 water-filled plastic bags suspended from the ceiling in an undulating pattern. Meanwhile, in a secluded room, a robotic arm, installed last year, is busy making 3-D prototypes associated with the firm’s diverse projects around the world.
“We are the only architects who have this,” says Snohetta’s founding partner and principal, Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, of the robot, manufactured by the German firm KUKA for use in the auto industry. Snohetta uses the prototypes, explains 52-year-old Mr. Thorsen, the way an artist might use preliminary studies for a final painting.
What Snohetta also has — and what just about every other large and midsize architecture practice lacks these days — is momentum. Founded in 1989, Snohetta, named after a Norwegian mountain, burst onto the architecture scene in 2002, with the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern-day revival of the ancient world’s most famous library. Their current roll began in 2008, with the opening of the acclaimed Oslo Opera House, and culminated in July with the commissioning of a much-publicized extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This summer, the firm was also awarded a commission to redesign New York City’s Times Square, and construction is finishing up in lower Manhattan on the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, a multi-use visitor center built directly on the site of the former World Trade Center.
Using what Mr. Thorsen likes to call an “organic” approach, Snohetta combines a deep respect for a building’s location with a harmonic and often stripped-down use of materials. In addition, Snohetta routinely incorporates artists in the very early stages of a project, rather than seeking them out later to decorate a building after it is finished. The result is a style of architecture that is both distinctive and tranquil, and often seems like an antidote to the self-conscious experiments and brash monumentality that have characterized much of the world’s recent building spree.
This year, a few months before beating out several Pritzker-Prize-winning architects for the San Francisco commission, Snohetta launched an in-house consulting wing, called Snohetta Design, which plans to extend the firm’s activities beyond architecture. The goal, says Martin Gran, CEO and managing director of Snohetta Design, is “to brand what [a] building is supposed to house.” Mr. Gran, 38, previously worked at global advertising giant McCann Erickson, where his clients included MasterCard.
During a meeting this July with Messrs. Thorsen and Gran, the two seemed to be speaking different languages. Mr. Gran may talk about “the power of branding” inherent in a successful building like the Oslo Opera House, while Mr. Thorsen, when referring to the Opera House’s predominant use of marble, talks about the “homogeneous continuation of material.”
In conversation, the effect is jarring but one of Snohetta Design’s inaugural projects, an ethereal 3-D logo for Snohetta’s King Abdullah Center for Dialogue, currently being designed for a site just outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia, demonstrates how business savvy and artistic inspiration can come together in common purpose.
Branding may have its limits, concedes Mr. Thorsen. The September 11 Memorial Pavilion, which sits atop an underground museum by another architecture firm, needs to respect the project’s commemorative function. And even the new San Francisco museum extension offers some branding challenges, he says, because of the need to respect the 1995 original building by Swiss architect Mario Botta, whose postmodernist approach of incorporating previous eras’ architectural styles is just about the opposite of what Snohetta is trying to do. “Postmodernism was never my agenda,” says Mr. Thorsen, who describes the wave as “reinventing replicas.”
“It’s not easy,” says Mr. Thorsen, of the joint task before Snohetta Design, and the architects themselves, as they try to create a new project that does justice to Mr. Botta’s popular building, while carving out an identity for itself. “But then again, architecture never is,” he adds.
The Snohetta building will be part of a $250 million expansion, says the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, which was initiated to house the contemporary art collection of Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap chain of clothing stores. Mr. Benezra says Snohetta was chosen after a selection committee visited Oslo this summer and saw the Oslo Opera House in person. Made up of several complementary levels of white Carrera marble, which seem to rise up collectively out of the Oslo Fjord like a geometric iceberg, the building proved to be “the tipping point for us.”
American architect Craig Dykers, Snohetta’s New York-based principal, is also excited about the challenge of working with Mr. Botta’s building. “It a very strong piece of architecture,” he says. “Making expansions means that you’re entering into a marriage. And I prefer to have a strong partner.”
Mr. Dykers, 48, doesn’t see the firm’s recent successes as altering its essential nature. “We have a funny name,” he says, speaking by phone from New York. “People don’t easily remember it, so fame isn’t tailored into who we are. Most people remember our buildings before they remember us.”
Hat tip to WSJ’s J. S. Marcus