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
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.


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…

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