The Art of Smart Thinking – Interview with Kjetil Traedal Thorsen

Snøhetta is considered by many as one of the leading architecture firms in the world by no coincidence. The Oslo and New York City-based architecture practice brings together technology, sustainability and smart- thinking into building and design projects across diverse landscapes. From the Oslo Opera House, to the San Francisco MoMA and the International Cave Art Centre in Lascaux each unique project shows Snøhetta’s ability to develop land into social and environmentally-conscious spaces that connect with contexts and change the way we feel and think. Atelier recently spoke to Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, founding partner of Snøhetta, who took us through Snøhetta’s portfolio of international projects, including the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Norwegian Opera and Ballet, and the National September 11 Memorial Museum he also shared with us their very busy agenda of projects in design and under construction.

Tell us a bit about the origins of the name.

From the onset, we agreed that the name had to be distinct. We did not want to use our names because this is a collaborative agreement. Ownership of a company should not reflect a person’s name but a collaborative concept. This premise is today relevant more than ever. Collaborative is key to solve complex issues. It was at that point that the name ‘Snøhetta Arkitektur: Landskap came to mind. The name ‘Snøhetta Arkitektur: Landskap’ was given
to the collaborative of architects and landscape architects who established themselves in the attic above a well-known, dark brown, beer place in

Storgata, Oslo in 1987. The name of this beer place is ‘Dovrehallen’, or the ‘Hall of Dovre’ in English. Dovre is a mountain area in the middle of Norway, at its point of gravity, where Snøhetta is the highest peak. The contextualization of the name Snøhetta is as such directly related to Oslo, yet part of the myths surrounding this hall in northern mythology. More importantly the mountain Snøhetta is both an object and a landscape not unlike the mountain Fuji. The name represented our mutual approach of full integration of landscape architecture and architecture in the design process.

You recently noted that SnØhetta started off with a clear premise of how architecture could contribute to better social awareness. Can you elaborate on that? 

Social awareness is a matter of stability and added value. We started off, very clearly with a picture of how architecture could contribute to better social awareness. We were trying to create buildings that could generate some sort of public ownership like libraries and concert houses by changing the attitude towards them. This is how we ended up at the Oslo Opera House, where there is no differentiation between public space, building and site. Opera House is an institution interested in promoting itself.

What approach do your projects take in terms of openness to the public?
Whilst working on several projects, we noted that budgets for their outdoor areas were limited. So it was like whatever was left over from the construction could be spent on the landscape. We said that this can’t be the case, because we’re neglecting our public space. Snøhetta continuously strives for readable accessibility and seeks to represent an attitude in architecture which includes social behaviour. This may be achieved by a certain degree of intimacy between public and projects, a touchable reality leading to public ownership. A ‘you can own what you can touch’ approach does however not limit the possibility of experimentation. There is really no contradiction between experimentation and the public, but there might be contradictions created by less sincere content.

In what way do you feel that architecture is a great societal tool?
We strongly believe that culture and cultural buildings are going to free the spirit of this world’s values, content, content innovation, performance, inclusion of a larger public. There should be a feeling of unity, place, environment and technological development, developments that have certainly had a hand in shaping.

Why has SnØhetta developed its operations into a multi-disciplinary practice?
It is building up a picture of the totality of the physical world. With offices in four continents, the firm’s diverse range of projects includes an underwater restaurant, a chair made from recycled fishing nets and graphics for Norway’s national bank notes. We really believe in this total principle. It’s about values, content, content innovation, performance, inclusion of a larger public, a feeling of unity, place, environment, technological development, etc. All these things come together in a huge complexity, and we’re trying to solve them by cross-professional work.

Tell us about your trans-positional method.

It is an attempt to generate a new level of collaboration. We do not invite different professions to gather around the same table, but invite each professional to imagine them in a different position. The Architect then becomes the Sociologist, the Sociologist the Artist, the Artist the Engineer, the Engineer the Graphic Designer, the Graphic Designer the Client, the Client the Architect and so on. In our experience, this encourages everyone to share other interests and life experiences. Professional responsibility is left behind, and each person contributes to a common goal based on their uniqueness. It is a singular in the plural approach rather than a plural definition of singularity.

What are your views about innovation?

Innovation is attained when one pushes the limits of conventional expectations. This translates into defining new ways of creating human interaction, adding new functionality and usage patterns allowing for new architectural typologies generating societal change.

Why do buildings seem to be overlooked today?

Buildings are not automatically architecture. Not even when designed by architects. Contemporary complexities seem to be met by naïve simplifications, random historical references and extreme political ideologies protecting selfish benefits, by an increasing number of people in Europe. We are leading to indifferent objects only fulfilling simple primary functions such as interiors based on illogical comfort parameters, or sufficient daylight for its users. These commodity objects lack any ambition to fulfil urgent societal needs.

In what way do you feel the current COVID-19 crisis will impact on architecture?
Its real impact is still to be seen. There are some words which will serve as a premise for post COVID-19 architecture such as “social distancing”. What is certain, architecture will have a key role to play on how to help re-open society.

What’s next for SnØhetta?

From the Oslo Opera House, to the San Francisco MoMA and the International Cave Art Centre in Lascaux, each project shows our ability to morph pockets of land into social and environmentally- conscious spaces that connect with contexts and change the way we feel and think. This will continue to be our goal for the years to come. We will also continue to create cultural hubs to help society move forward. We are constructing in Shanghai and Busan. At the moment, we have twenty-five projects around the world. Cultural projects will continue to be our core focus in the years to come as it is our contribution towards society.

What advice might you give to students and young designers?
Think long term, use your whole body and prioritize your time. Be focused.

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