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The Risk of Being Too Nice

“A House to Die In”

an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, September 25–November 18, 2012
filler_1-020713.jpg
Jens Passoth/Snøhetta
The Oslo Opera House, which, according to Martin Filler, ‘has given the Norwegian capital one of Europe’s most enjoyable and instantly beloved public spaces of the past half-century.’ It was designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta and completed in 2008.

1.

Despite the persistent image of the architect as a heroic loner erecting monumental edifices through sheer force of will, the building art has always been a highly cooperative enterprise. Although the parti (basic organizing principle) of a design may sometimes be the product of one intelligence, the realization of a structure of even moderate complexity depends on a broad range of expertise seldom encompassed by any individual, no matter how singularly gifted. As an artistic endeavor, present-day architecture most closely resembles filmmaking, in which the prime creative mover, the director—even the most visionary of auteurs—requires the specialized technical skills of a large cohort of indispensable collaborators.

Thus an architectural team today comprises not only the long-familiar roster of structural engineers, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) specialists, acousticians, interior designers, lighting engineers, and landscape architects, but also computer software engineers, environmental impact managers, and (for certain public buildings) security analysts and anti-terrorism consultants, positions that did not exist a generation ago. One leading New York architectural headhunter reports an even wider array of new job descriptions, including sustainability director, virtual design coordinator, and digital librarian.

Given the growing complexity of architectural tasks and the ever-advancing technologies available to resolve them, that high degree of interdependence is only likely to increase. As Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding member of the Norwegian architectural collaborative Snøhetta, told me in his Oslo office in 2011:

Architecture is now far too complex to be designed by any one person. It is truly a much more communal process than it ever has been. Our conceptual model is “the singular in the plural,” in which all of us are shareholders and each individual takes on responsibility for the company.

Perhaps only a post-industrial social democracy as progressive as Norway—surely among the most enlightened of all contemporary nations, with as good a claim as any other to being a thoroughly evolved and humane society—could have produced an architectural office such as this. A self-described non-hierarchical cooperative whose principals avowedly seek to avoid the personal celebrity we associate with Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind, Snøhetta is far different from the top-down model adopted during the postwar period by large American architectural firms exemplified by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which patterned its organizational structure and management methods on those of the large corporations they hoped to attract as clients.

Instead, this far more informal group aims to give quite the opposite impression, that of mutually supportive friends who have banded together to come up with ingenious ideas that will make life better for everyone, primarily but not exclusively their sponsors. It is an uplifting ethos that a younger generation of enlightened clients has found irresistible.

Snøhetta promotes a more democratic workplace atmosphere than most other architectural offices. This may merely reflect prevalent employment practices in Scandinavia, but Snøhetta places a stronger emphasis on group participation in the design process than typical high-style firms. Rather than consigning junior assistants to repetitive backroom drudgery like detailing fire stairs and other minutiae of building-code compliance, the Norwegian collaborative makes a habit of handing over relatively small commissions to younger associates in order to develop their problem-solving skills. As Thorsen told me, the jobs handled by his less experienced colleagues are carefully monitored “so that they cannot get into too much trouble.”

Even the group’s unconventional nomenclature works toward egalitarian ends. Snøhetta, which means “snow cap” in Norwegian—a cryptic choice for an organization with such international aspirations—comes from the eponymous 7,500-foot-high mountain that is the tallest peak in the Dovrefjell range 240 miles north of Oslo. (As a group “bonding” exercise, Snøhetta employees make an annual pilgrimage to the mountain in central Norway.) The name was picked in 1987 by the firm’s six original organizers, all landscape architects committed to interdisciplinary group practice. The firm’s gradual evolution from landscape architecture specialists to a more full-service operation remains evident in an unusual attentiveness to environmental conditions and an exceptional aptitude for site planning. The only two of the original group still with the organization are Thorsen, who heads the main office housed in a converted pierside warehouse on the Oslo harborfront, and Snøhetta’s other principal (there are also five partners), the American Craig Dykers, who directs the US office in Lower Manhattan near their project at Ground Zero.

Since the turn of the millennium, Snøhetta has risen quickly with a series of well-received schemes that in turn have won them other prestigious commissions now in planning or construction. Their meteoric emergence after two decades of practice is a phenomenon on a par with that of their closest American counterparts, the New York firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, who likewise display a keen instinct for contemporary urbanism. Although the firm is based principally in the Norwegian capital—site of the firm’s best-known work to date, the Oslo Opera House of 2003–2008—its increasingly busy branch in New York City oversees its American commissions, which include the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, begun in 2004 at Ground Zero; a 2010 proposal for reconfiguring Manhattan’s chronically amorphous and chaotic Times Square; and an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art awarded in 2010.

As a result of such conspicuous jobs, Snøhetta has been appearing on short lists for major commissions alongside avant-garde grandees like Jean Nouvel, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA—all Pritzker Prize winners. Perhaps because Norway, small and off the beaten path, has been less than central to the narrative of modern architecture, Snøhetta has downplayed its geographic origins to the extent that other Norwegian architects now view the firm as a multinational venture that has priced itself out of the local market for architectural services. That perception may be contradicted by Snøhetta’s participation in Norway’s admirable government-sponsored National Tourist Routes program—which has underwritten small but exquisite architectural interventions including rest stations, bicycle shelters, scenic viewing platforms, and the like in remote locales to encourage tourism to far reaches of the country—yet there is no question that the firm’s growing presence in the United States is part of a global-minded strategy.

2.

During the mid-twentieth-century heyday of the Modern Movement—which became closely identified with Scandinavia in the popular imagination thanks to that region’s widely distributed, user-friendly contemporary household furnishings—Norway had no internationally recognized master until Sverre Fehn (1924–2009) won the Pritzker Prize in 1997, even though Fehn’s late-life overnight rediscovery overlooked his youthful coup as designer of the much-admired Norwegian Pavilion at the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition of 1958, which brought to mind a woodsy version of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s renowned German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. This low profile no doubt had more to do with Norway’s relatively small population—in 1940 it numbered just under three million inhabitants, less than half the size of Sweden, a ratio still more or less maintained with five million Norwegians and nine-and-a-half million Swedes today—and commensurate level of building activity than it reflected any inherent lack of native talent.

To be sure, Norwegians eagerly embraced International Style architecture—which they call funksjonalisme (Functionalism)—without any of the conservative resistance to it that has never quite died out in the US. The new, unadorned architecture of modernism was suited to the rational, egalitarian tenor of Norway’s emergent social democracy, which was further informed by research in the social sciences—specialists called hvite frakker (white coats) in Norwegian—and steadily institutionalized as the twentieth century progressed. Since then, Norway has quietly developed one of the most impressive contemporary architectural cultures in Europe, sustaining an overall level of architectural excellence lately equaled on the continent only by Holland and Spain.

Two years after Snøhetta was first organized as a studio called Snøhetta arkitektur og landskap in 1987, it produced the winning entry in an open competition for a modern reincarnation of the fabled library of ancient Alexandria, one of the marvels of classical antiquity: their Bibliotheca Alexandrina of 1989–2001. The significance of this prestigious contest, which attracted submissions from seventy-seven countries—jointly sponsored by the city and the University of Alexandria, the Egyptian government, UNESCO, and the United Nations Development Programme, among others—was further enhanced by the spectacular waterfront site allotted to the scheme, not unlike that which the designers would later enjoy with their acclaimed Oslo Opera House.

For the new library, Snøhetta devised a structure that is at once monumental and humane, seemingly contradictory values that on more than one occasion these designers have demonstrated a particular aptitude for combining without the slightest incongruity. The building’s most notable aspect is a vast, windowless, slightly tilting, granite-clad cylindrical form that appears like some Ptolemaic vestige as one approaches from the south and enters it, either via a narrow elevated pedestrian footbridge that spans the wide traffic thoroughfare fronting the facility, or at street level, both of which routes lead to an overscaled, unframed oblong portal cut deeply into the curving stone façade.

As one nears the building it becomes clear that the masonry exterior is densely carved with inscriptions in lettering from all known alphabets, ancient and modern, a variation on the traditional practice of engraving the names of famous authors on the outer walls of libraries. This massive, fortress-like, yet propulsive enclosure also serves a practical purpose—to protect the interior from the sandstorms that blow up from the south and toward the Mediterranean just behind it.

Viewed from the sea, however, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina presents an entirely different appearance. Instead of the monolithic cylinder visible as one faces the library’s south elevation, the northern prospect is dominated by an immense glazed disc that slopes downward, almost to ground level, toward the water. With its regular pattern of triangular skylights, this gently angled roof brings to mind the composite telescopic mirror of an astral observatory. Beneath it lies the institution’s principal space, the great reading hall—a huge, nearly circular room, its roof supported by a modular grid of slender supporting columns that brings to mind both the domed and skylit salle de travail of Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France of 1862–1868 in Paris, as well as the forest-like profusion of columned arches in the Great Mosque of Córdoba. With such evocative cross-cultural references and strong civic presence, Snøhetta deservedly won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the triennial prize for outstanding construction in the Islamic world, in 2004.

The work that launched Snøhetta into the architectural big leagues was their Oslo Opera House, which will certainly rank among the firm’s highlights whatever else they may do. Although this is by any measure a triumph of city planning, the building itself is not quite a masterpiece, though very fine indeed. It suffers from a clash of mixed stylistic metaphors. The crisply faceted exterior—which is clad with white marble, granite, and aluminum—and the soaring forty-nine-foot-high glass-walled entry hall with gigantic tilting columns have an insistent angularity that seems almost Deconstructivist, to use the word associated with the dislocated and distorted shapes of such architects as Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi, whose work was included in the 1988 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture,” which gave credence to this intentionally fragmentary style. These elements are in contrast to the undulating vertical-wood-slatted surface of the auditorium’s exterior and balcony promenades, which swell into the lobby like a remonstrative visitation from the ghost of Alvar Aalto, Modernism’s Mr. Natural.

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