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Work / Opinion

How to foster collaboration and community culture: working the Snøhetta way

Architecture and design firm Snøhetta was founded in 1989. The company now employs over 150 people working across a diverse number of creative disciplines in eight offices globally. Whether the company is producing banknotes for the Central bank of Norway or a student centre in Toronto, Snøhetta brings a consistent spirit of invention to all its projects. Here, founding director Kjetil Trædal Thorsen talks us through how the company established a coherent creative culture across its many locations.

“At Snøhetta our creative sessions are based on some few, but clearly defined attitudes and drivers. The following statements define our principle thoughts when aiming at developing a long-term community culture shared by people working with Snøhetta.

Singular in the plural is a terminology emphasising how individual and personal interests contribute to the development of a group. These interests need not be found within the professional framework of architecture, design, or engineering, but just as much within different passions in life. Rather than fitting individuals into a group philosophy, the individuals themselves define the dynamics of the group. We encourage the musician in a person as much as his or her professional development. In order to have enough input into the group at large, certain conditions such as gender equality, nationality and age diversity, and open office space need to reflect the mental structure of the group. The common lunch table in all our offices is one example of how physical space is designed to reflect our shared values.

A continuous state of reinvention concerns the discussion of group and individual relationships when events, new knowledge, new tools, or simply new demands condition societal changes. By reinvention we mean challenging habitual thinking and behaviour on individual, collective, and professional levels.

Transpositioning is the working method used by Snøhetta to implement the thinking of reinvention. Especially when reflecting on early phases of idea-based work, we have found it very useful to let those involved in the process relax their professional representation. We simply let people test other professions than their own when searching for explicit solutions to specific tasks. It releases them from their professional responsibilities for a short period of time and the idea development has a tendency of becoming less argumentative and with less reference to negative experiences. One might compare this to how some orchestras let their musicians rehearse on each other’s instruments to understand each other’s challenges or possibilities. For a concert, however, one would return to one’s own instrument with this new knowledge.

In addition to these three main principles, the next level of drivers may be utilised in any combination or sequence, by any person directly or indirectly involved in projects within our offices. Prepping, the art of preparing or initiating a project; zooming out, seeing the big picture; craving wonder or activating drama, the stories told when creative brains meet; getting physical or rapid prototyping, the relationship between body, the real thing and objects; liberating laughter, the fun of it all; generative resistance, the martial art of creation, and punk production are all drivers that may be used and shaped according to task or context.

The Snøhetta culture is thus defined by focusing on methods and definitions describing our collective efforts. It is important that they do not become absolutes, and that time and place allows for freedom of choice within relatively wide parameters. In relation to the world at large, we are our own most important project."

Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is a founding partner at Snøhetta

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© Calle Huth

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© Calle Huth