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Craig Dykers of Snøhetta

Ask for Mr. Snøhetta and you'll receive a hiking stick and map to one of Norway's tallest peaks. The eponymous architecture firm, with offices in Oslo and New York, is purposely anonymous, and it's near impossible to pick out its principals, Craig Dykers and Kjetil Traedal Thorsen, on the company's online grid of employee faces. Snøhetta's work, however, is unmistakable and unforgettable. From the Alexandria Library in Egypt to the New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo and the National September 11th Memorial Museum under construction in New York, Snøhetta has designed buildings across the globe that are as breathetaking as its homeland's fjords. Dykers, one of the company's founders, is often on the road but, unsurprisingly, tends to avoid the spotlight. He did, however, walk into the limelight last week in San Francisco to speak at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts and the American Institute of Architecture San Francisco chapter as well as with Dwell editor Miyoko Ohtake. Here we share the words and wisdom that he imparted on us.

Norwegian National Opera and Ballet by Snøhetta. On display at the Scandinavia House in New York through April 4, 2010, as part of the <i>Snøhetta: Architecture, Landscape, Interior</i> exhibit. Photograph by Jens Passoth.
The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet by Snøhetta.

"We have a chef in the office and often work at big communal tables going from meeting to eating and eating to meeting. It gives it that kitchen-table quality to how we interact.

"We wanted to remove authorship so named the firm not after us but after a mountain in Norway. We wanted to be seen as place makers as opposed to the makers of places; people know our buildings but not who we are, which we like. When people ask to meet this Snøhetta person, we give them directions to the mountain.

"We climb it once a year, in September. The ascention it is very much like the design process because when you think you've reached the peak, you see another one ahead of you.

"We have 110 people: 85 in Oslo, 25 in New York. We're 50 percent men and 50 percent women. When you have too many men or too many women on a project, it's a problem. Balance is best.

"When the economy permits, we get the whole office together. We all went to Scotland a few years ago, which gave us the opportunity to wear kilts, something I highly recommend.

"We make a lot of models, from clay and paper ones to those made by rapid-prototyping and CNC machines. People are so used to only feeling the tops of their keyboards. With a model, you can hold it and grunt and people to know what you're talking about without needing to use words.

"We with with the T.A.R. rule: The Three Alternatives Rule. Give clients three alternatives. Four is too many, two is like an ultimatum, and one is no alternative. In Europe, though, they'd fire you for this, saying "We hired you for the best design, what are these other two?".

"Landscapes can be frightening things. They can hurt you or overtake you. You don't want hurricanes or earthquakes to knock your buildings down.

"In school you're not taught to think of people as anything but fuel for design; they're an abstraction. You make a building, put people in it, and see what happens.

"It was another guerilla project: see how many birdhouses we could put up before we were stopped. A birdhouse is such a little, innocuous, nice thing that you wouldn't think anyone would want to stop you but they did. We got 42 up, some between rocks, others on trees being cut down for lumber.

"As a tourist, you see the city from the bottom of it or from the top of a very high structure. You rarely get to see it from the middle. The ramps of the opera house let you see Oslo at the horizon line of the city. You can also walk down to the water; everyone goes to the beach, why can't we go do that in a building?

"It's such a traumatic place to be that we wanted it to be light. We lifted the building off the ground and wrapped it in metal with little angelhair scratches so you can see yourself but not all the individual parts. The idea is to project yourself on the image of the events of September. We'll be happy to see it realized on the tenth anniversary.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum by Snøhetta. On display at the Scandinavia House in New York through April 4, 2010, as part of the <i>Snøhetta: Architecture, Landscape, Interior</i> exhibit. Rendered by Squared.
Rendering of the National September 11th Memorial Museum by Snøhetta.

"The Alexandria library. That obviously was our lucky break. We made good decisions, like agreeing it was too big to do alone, which was the start of the company.

"We balance research with gut intuition. We don't eliminate feelings from work, though, of course, not all feelings are good ones.

"The idea with Snøhetta, which was purposely not named after a person, is to have no heroes. Everywhere you go you'll find people who aren't well known but who are doing amazing work. There are too many to know or mention.

"We have stacks of books and are always reading a couple at a time. One of my favorites is The Myth of the Cave about the development of prehistoric art. Right now I'm reading a book about the unknown history of North America. If you're going to work in a place, you should know more than one perspective about it.

"I like Jacque Tati's Mon Oncle and I'm in the large category of people who like Citizen Cane.

"Lately I've been listening to the Andrews Sisters and a compilation called One Giant Leap.

"Starting the New York office was a challenge. Some people said go for it, some people said they wouldn't do it. We needed something like that to push us and do more than what we were doing so it was good advice to try that.

"Acoustics is number one for an office; you need to be able to have a conversation without worrying about disturbing everyone else. I also like lots of pin-up space and would like to have a whitetable, like a horizontal whiteboard.

"We're at a place where people are understanding our work enough that they come to us with informed ideas of who we are. I'm looking forward to discussions with people about our work.

"Because we work so much on pure architectural works, I'd like to work on something arts-related, a temporary installation or a performance space."

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