How a multimedia juggernaut called Snøhetta is driving design worldwide—and incidentally changing our perception of collaboration on an equal footing. An interview with founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen.
Snøhetta is an out-of-the-ordinary architect’s office and the creative force behind globally acclaimed cultural edifices including the Oslo Opera (Norwegian National Opera & Ballet), Lillehammer Art Museum, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Snøhetta is a cultural supertanker, carrying in its hold a kind of matrix for our age: a crew of mixed teams from 32 different countries, made up of industrial designers, architects, graphic designers, sociologists and landscapers, all working on the texture of the world around us. The various strands of their work take the form of parallel, non-linear processes in five locations around the world, autonomous and largely free from hierarchies. Snøhetta thus extends far beyond any conventional idea of architecture.
Our style is to have no style, says co-founder and gallery owner (www.r-o-m.no) Thorsen, even if investors would perhaps prefer it otherwise. Everything is created from scratch and on the spot. Others who propagate bottom-up solutions often do little more than scatter items of signature architecture over a slew of destinations; Snøhetta takes the road less travelled, visiting locations, listening and involving before decisions are taken by the whole team.
No wonder the resulting works are such hybrids. These are buildings that are not simply an opera house, say, but simultaneously a public place, a skate park or a destination for a Sunday outing with the family. Take the example of Alexandria, where fans of the library protected the building during the riots out of a profound awareness of what had been created there: a phenomenon extending beyond books and catalogues, a place of transformation that unlocks spaces of freedom and connects Egypt with the world.
With versatility as its driving principle, it’s only logical for Snøhetta to design Norway’s new banknotes or trial Europe’s first underwater restaurant, develop interiors for concept store YME (www.ymeuniverse.com), and produce trade show architecture and even cutlery sets (www.snohetta.com/projects/411-barr-cutlery-set). These are tools of change; some clearly visible, some subcutaneous, but all effective.
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav (Den Kongelige Norske Sankt Olavs Orden), brings an attitude of forensic focus to our interview. The motto of the Order, RET OG SANDHED (Justice and Truth) could have been devised by him. But his personal maxim is even more trenchant: working on creating a better world. Few can claim this and retain their credibility, but Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is one of them.