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Features / Graphic Design

We chat to Snøhetta about designing banknotes, studio rituals and the problems with civic commissions

Words:

Rob Alderson

Photography:

Ike Edeani

Every year, staff from the Snøhetta architecture and design agency assemble in Norway to climb the mountain after which the studio is named. Part pilgrimage, part team-building exercise, part AGM, the trip is still an important ritual for Snøhetta co-founder Craig Dykers.

“It’s a beautiful place to go, it’s remote and it has a wonderful history in Norse mythology,” he says.

It’s fitting that the agency takes its name from the mountain said to house the holy hall of Valhalla because Snøhetta is an organisation both inspired by storytelling and defined by it.

“There’s always a narrative in everything,” Craig explains. “For thousands of years everything was passed back and forwards through storytelling and that doesn’t disappear. Our minds demand it.”

There are several stories that are attached to Snøhetta. It grew out of a group of likeminded architects who met above the Dovrehallen beer hall in Oslo. It was catapulted to prominence in 1989 when Craig Dykers and Kjetil Thorsen, the former in Los Angeles and the latter in Norway, won the commission for The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the much-heralded revival of the original Library of Alexandria in Egypt. When Dykers got the call he had just stepped out of the shower, and after receiving the life-changing news he ran out onto his front lawn naked in triumph. The annual Snøhetta climb is part of the agency’s mythology too now, but it’s changed over the years. “We use the time to talk about what we’re doing and where we want to go. We used to go just for the sake of climbing but now it’s got to have more meaning.”

He says this almost wistfully, sat in what will be the studio’s new Manhattan base. The US office was set up in 2004 after Snøhetta was chosen to create the pavilion on the World Trade Center site; since then they’ve added studios in San Francisco, Austria, Singapore, France and Australia, employing 160 staff working across architecture, landscapes, interiors and branding. And yet despite its growth, many things remain true to its origins, from the small touches (Craig shows me proudly where the new office’s beer tap will be) to the culture.

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The latter developed from what Craig calls “the strange informality of our group” and is defined as transpositioning, whereby different creatives immerse themselves in each other’s disciplines to better understand their own. “It’s like method acting,” Craig explains.

This ambitious but clearly effective way of working is further complicated by the studio’s international bent – at the moment it has employees from 30 different countries working across its offices.

“Holy cow is that true?” Craig exclaims when his colleague confirms this number, both surprised and delighted (and becoming the only person I ever heard say the phrase “holy cow” out loud).

“Cultural baggage is a hard thing to manage,” he continues, although he points out it’s been a part of Snøhetta from the start (as a collective based between California and Norway working on a library in Egypt). “When you sit across a table from someone and say, ‘This is how I learned to do it and this is the right way,’ and the other person says, ‘Well this is how I learned to do it and this is the right way,’ suddenly you realise maybe neither of you are correct.”

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Ike Edeani: Snøhetta

The diversity of the workforce mirrors the breadth of the projects it’s worked on, from the redesign of Times Square to a new dolls’ house, Norwegian banknotes to the Oslo Opera House.

“We try to understand each project on its own merits but what’s important is we don’t want to feel we’re making highly expensive tailored clothing for a few very wealthy individuals,” he says.

“We are trying to promote the sensibility in our spaces that you feel you are part of a wider society and that your understanding of the world is changing. You’re being challenged at times and other times you’re being let go to do whatever you feel you want to do.”

One of the great thrills of empowering people in this way is that they will use the space in ways Craig and his team could never have predicted; whether that’s the couple pictured having sex on the roof of the Oslo Opera House shortly after it opened or the Learning Centre at Ryerson University in Canada, where a breakdancing club takes over one of its rooms at 6pm every day.

“We are trying to promote the sensibility in our spaces that you feel you are part of a wider society and that your understanding of the world is changing. You’re being challenged at times and other times you’re being let go to do whatever you feel you want to do.”

Craig Dykers

“The vastness of humanity is always coming out in these spaces,” Craig laughs. This is also why he loves platforms like Instagram where he can see how visitors actually react to Snøhetta’s creations.

“To see raw footage coming out of people’s interests is a great tool. In the past it was practically impossible unless you stood there and tried to collect data, it would take a long time for you to understand the public perception of a building.”

That’s not to say though that Craig plays down the role of the people who create the spaces; rather he revels in the creative dialogue that takes place once they are turned over to public use.

“Architecture’s a profession that’s challenged in the current world view of how cities are made, but there is relevance to people seeing things in a special way. We still have the capacity to be savants as designers, and people still want that.

“Designers can channel ideas and take you in directions you might not have thought about or allow you to see underneath your everyday thoughts. We still think we bring surprise to reality.”

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The banknotes Snøhetta is working on for the Central Bank of Norway reflect this idea of adding magic into the mundane. Its pixelated designs, inspired by hildring – a Norwegian term for the boundary between the horizon and the sky – were a huge internet hit, but Craig admits he took some convincing when the idea of moving into graphic design was first mooted.

“I was not at all keen on the idea,” he says. “I thought we were stepping too far out of what we were able to do. But everyone else said let’s give it a chance and thank god we did because they (the branding group) have transformed the thinking in the office.

“We are more consciously aware of what our marks mean to people. When you make a mark on a wall or a piece of paper there’s a significance to that which we often overlook.”

An open-mindedness to the unexpected is a recurring theme in Snøhetta’s work. For the redesign of New York’s Times Square – due for completion next year – the studio started by mapping all the points where the space’s different users get pissed off. From there they developed the idea of using pedestrianised areas and street furniture to streamline the experience for tourists, lunchtime snackers and those desperate just to pass through quickly. Along the way Snøhetta discovered to its amazement that Times Square isn’t actually flat – in fact the centre is some eight feet lower than the edges because the site was once a swamp where four streams came together.

“So all the water still follows the same watercourses that it did before any asphalt or any buildings were put there,” Craig says. “You can have a feeling or intuition about a place and that leads you to an historical precedent you didn’t know about.”

“Since designing the banknotes we are more consciously aware of what our marks mean to people. When you make a mark on a wall or a piece of paper there’s a significance to that which we often overlook.”

Craig Dykers

He clearly enjoys working on big civic projects like Times Square, where a combination of location and heritage stitch them into a city’s very fabric. But sometimes the significance of these big projects can become problematic.The National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion is the only building on the memorial plaza, the former site of the Twin Towers. Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s fountains, around which the names of the victims are carved, cascade down into the ground and the Memorial Museum sits under the site too, but the angular glass pavilion is designed as “a bridge between two worlds.”

Since it was opened last May it’s been widely-praised, but at one stage Craig admits the project came to “a dead-stop.”

“Everyone had an opinion and the problems were primarily political,” he says. It took a last-ditch meeting with the New York State governor to save the commission, but it was something he felt very strongly about.

“Normally you have a memorial ground and a museum next to it but this was one on top of the other and that’s why we thought it represented a courageous move.

“Our feeling at Snøhetta was that the world is not perfect, the world cannot be defined by a sacred utopian vision of events. Things are messy and we have to come to terms with that, so by creating this dissonance we felt that could provide value and meaning to the site.

“You can get lost in the solemnity or you can get overwhelmed by the skyscrapers and this little building has an enormous role in connecting those two worlds, the death of the past and the life of the future. Without our project there’s no today.”

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