Roof as tilted square

The edges of things: meeting Snøhetta in Oslo.

At first, I think the taxi driver has taken a wrong turning. I’m in Oslo, and he’s meant to be going to the studio of Norway’s most internationally successful architects. But he seems to be getting lost somewhere down in a dockside industrial zone. Finally we fetch up at an unpromising cement-rendered shed. It boasts two logos: “Cod Farmers” and “Snøhetta”. That’ll do.

Later, talking to Kjetil Thorsen – co-founder of the practice that first leapt to international prominence with its competition win for the Great Library at Alexandria, which took twelve long years to build – the subject of edges comes up. Norwegians, Thorsen points out, are edge-people. They occupy narrow strips of cultivated land between steep mountains and deep fjords. Snøhetta’s office exploits just such an edge condition. The industrial zone does not matter because, out in front of it, is an utterly Norwegian view – past wooded headlands, out to sea. The whole office is oriented towards, and opens up to, this view.

As architects’ offices go, this is one of the best I’ve ever been in, and not just for its central ‘chandelier’ made of water-filled plastic bags and disco glitterballs. The space is organised simply, with conviction. It fills one big long space, arranged either side of a communal area (beneath the waterbags) that acts as an amphitheatre. When Thorsen rings the brass maritime bell by the door, everyone- that’s around 100 people – assembles for whatever announcement it might be – yet another competition win, probably, though Thorsen remarks ruefully that he’s lost a few to Zaha lately. An office with a further 20 people is in New York.

At one end are long tables, where drawings are spread out for the latest competition entry, just going off today. Rapidly these are removed, because it’s 12 noon and that’s when the office has lunch, prepared in the kitchen overlooking the space. The fish soup is absolutely fresh and delicious. As you would hope, here. The PR man for the nearby Oslo Opera House (by Snøhetta) will tell you how his grandfather made the largest single catch of herring ever recorded.

I’m here, along with Jennifer Francis from London’s Royal Academy, because Thorsen will be giving the RA’s annual Architecture lecture on July 13, and this seemed as good a time to catch up with the practice as any. And to see a big exhibition of Snøhetta’s work at Oslo’s National Museum of Architecture. And for that matter to see the opera house itself, which won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award this year.

You won’t yet find any buildings from this practice in Britain. The Serpentine summer pavilion that Thorsen made with artist Olafur Eliasson a couple of years back was temporary as they all are, and has been sold to the same collector as most of the others. His competition-winning Turner Contemporary art museum destined for Margate in North Kent – a building set in the stormy seas, like Turner himself lashed to the mast as he drew – foundered on the rock of steeply-rising costs: a dispute is ongoing, and Thorsen does not want to talk about it. A replacement museum is being designed by David Chipperfield.

But there is plenty more. Thorsen takes us through the various Snøhetta schemes currently in progress – they are big in the Middle East, for instance, have been ever since the Alexandria Library, which for many years was their only project and which finally opened in 2001 (an extension is now in hand). But while Egypt has the weight of history upon it, this is not the case with other countries in the region. “Saudi Arabia is a young country – everything is missing,” says Thorsen as he shows me his extraordinary project for the King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture at Dhahran, conceived as an assemblage of giant sand-smoothed pebbles propped up in the desert. Now they are getting down to detail design – in particular, the external sunshading carapace of stainless-steel tubes. A sample section is being tested against the studio glazing, and other part-models lie scattered around.

Then there is their gateway building for the new city of Ras Al Khaimah, the Emirate that everyone tends to forget because it has no oil. In fact this is an enormous sweep of buildings, a convention and exhibition centre and office complex stretching to over a kilometre long, part of the overall OMA/Koolhaas masterplan. The largest project Snøhetta has ever undertaken, its fluid forms will be clad in white ceramic – a product manufactured locally on a huge scale.

The Norwegian critic Ingerid Helsing Almaas has written that many of Snøhetta’s projects show “impropriety and irreverent wilfulness”, that they are not designed with beauty in mind and that – rather like Zaha’s output – there appears to be no underlying manifesto position, just the creation of fruitful excess. Since this is published in an authorised book on Snøhetta’s works, we can only conclude that Thorsen and his New York-based co-director Craig Dykers are happy with this analysis. It certainly explains why they constantly find themselves up against Zaha for extreme Middle Eastern projects.

But does this Expressionism serve a public purpose? Take the opera house – or the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, to give it its full name. “Public buildings should be horizontal,” says Thorsen. “The land belongs to us all”. (In contrast he believes private commercial buildings should be tall, with a small footprint, taking up as little land as possible). We go for a walk through it, and over it. This is the big idea of the opera house, a gleaming wedge of white marble and glass: that you can quite literally walk all over, up around the flytower, down the other side, into the water. It thus becomes a great tilted public plaza.

In many countries you just wouldn’t get away with this. The tilt is quite steep. There are various unmarked steps and incisions into the plane. There are no horizontal refuge-points until you get near the top. In Britain, it wouldn’t be allowed, and if by a miracle it did get built, it would immediately be fenced off by the health and safety police. And yes, Thorsen concedes, people do sometimes trip and fall. There has been a bit of a thing in the papers about it. But it remains open, thronged with people (and there are lifts to serve those who can’t handle the slope). Apparently the roofscape – all marble slabs in various textures, reminding you a little of the publicly-accessible roof of Milan Cathedral – is classified as a work of art, and this allows it to sidestep the usual stifling regulations that surround such things. Bravo!

Inside, the foyers are good but – apart from the best toilet-block in the world, a piece of glowing freestanding sculpture by Thorsen’s long-time artist collaborator Olafur Eliasson – not so very unconventional. The curving timber-slatted form of the auditorium protruding into the space is itself highly sculptural, though the auditorium itself, finished in dark fumed oak, is positively traditional inside: the standard operatic horseshoe shape is deployed in the usual manner. The back and side stages are immense.

The first external glimpse I had of the opera house was from the “wrong” side, where its dimpled silvery aluminium cladding makes it look like a slightly superior office block. And this, really, is what that part is. An opera house is part performance space, part administration centre, part factory, all jumbled together. The money shot is of the public wedge: there is a lot more to it than that, including a fine large private courtyard at the rear for all the people who work there.

Thorsen spends a lot of time showing me the backstage areas – where, for instance, he has put the set-making department on display to the public through big windows. He’s not just concerned with external form. He likes the guts of places. And this is just as true of his own studio where he is very keen to show you the model shop behind the scenes.

In fact, a finished model is being carefully packed into its purpose-made box – the latest confidential competition entry, this time for Russia rather than the Middle East. Snøhetta is in a three-way contest with Jean Nouvel and Ben van Berkel for a cultural building. There are, Thorsen estimates, probably no more than 25 offices like theirs which regularly compete on this kind of international level.

But what Thorsen really wants to show me is not so much that, as his latest gizmo. He takes me into a room at the end where a large industrial robot stands. It appears to be the world’s most sophisticated router and grinder. It will machine you a complete landscape with buildings, out of a solid block, following computer instructions. Thorsen stands by it and gives it a hug. It’s only a tool, but a very costly and wonderful one.

The Snøhetta exhibition at the National Museum of Architecture is exemplary, as precisely organised into its three sections as the studio itself. The “analogue” section – all models and bits of models – is in a pavilion by the late Sverre Fehn, one of the Norwegian modern master architects. If you are in Oslo, make a point of seeing it. As for the Royal Academy lecture, Thorsen and Dykers will both speak, but only Thorsen is Norwegian. Dykers is German-American. Thorsen may well talk a little about the edges of things, and what they mean to him. In the end, he is more rooted than some of his Expressionist contemporaries. You can argue that this architecture does emerge from something. The something might just be the business of being Norwegian, where buildings cling to, or emerge from, overwhelming landscapes. The name Snøhetta, incidentally, is that of a famous mountain in central Norway.


Oslo Opera House:
National Museum of Architecture and Design:
Snøhetta at the Royal Academy, London:

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