Practice: The Great Equalizers

The celebrated Norwegian firm Snøhetta introduces its egalitarian ways of working to an American architecture world known for rigid, top-down management.

There is no reception desk at Snøhetta’s New York City office. Passing through the double-wide doorway, visitors might find themselves standing uncomfortably before a meeting in session at a 30-foot-long table. On this November afternoon, two project teams were stationed at the ends of the table—one group collaborating with acoustical engineers on a new concert hall at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario; and the other discussing the redesign of Times Square as a visiting anthropologist, perched on the table with video camera in hand, observed and recorded the conversation. (Her doctoral thesis will compare the inner workings of the Norwegian firm’s New York and Oslo offices.) The walls aren’t lined with pictures of past achievements, of which there are many; instead, staff members discuss current projects while clustered around 3-D models or standing in front of renderings tacked to bulletin boards.

The scene and its setting—an open layout with communal tables and a bullpen of desks—reveal the company’s guiding philosophy, which is predicated on principles more common to liberal-arts colleges than thriving design studios: transparency, diversity, cross-disciplinarity, and parity between men and women as well as senior and junior staff. Anyone passing by the conference table is welcome to weigh in, and at least in theory, every opinion is valued. That’s a stark departure from traditional architecture practices, where minions execute most of the work at the discretion of (and with little recognition from) the partners. Here, bonuses are doled out equally across the board to unionized staffers, and the owners earn no more than three times the salary of the lowest-paid employee.

Snøhetta’s egalitarian approach seems to be working. Over the last decade, it has quietly snatched up important cultural commissions typically reserved for starchitects: the Oslo Opera House; the King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture, in Saudi Arabia; several arts buildings; and, most recently, the much awaited expansion of SFMOMA. But it was the firm’s winning proposal for the 9/11 visitors’ center that announced its status as a major player in North America—and, ultimately, necessitated opening an office in 2004, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

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While most New York firms have cut staff and salaries, Snøhetta’s new branch has grown from 15 to 25 staffers since 2008. The expansion hasn’t been without its challenges, but the move may have been the thing that rescued the middle-aged firm from complacency. “We have an office in Oslo that is very successful, we’ve had it running well for twenty years, and there is no real reason why we should have to establish ourselves anywhere else,” says Craig Dykers, who, along with Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, is a founding principal. “But creating a place here in New York provided a creative stress to the company at a time when we were at our most comfortable.” Martin Gran, the CEO of Snøhetta Design, the Oslo-based branding arm that launched in 2008, echoes the sentiment: “Internally, everyone is working on projects and there is tension; but in a macro perspective, when the new office was established, there was a tension between New York and Oslo, and something positive was coming out of that. Tension is really good. What if we are agreeing all the time? Nothing would ever happen.”

Even on a day-to-day basis, Snøhetta’s employees are prevented from becoming too settled. In Oslo, the 70 designers switch desks regularly. Teams of four-to-six architects are assembled with diversity in mind—of disciplines (an architecture-based project might include a landscape architect and an urban planner, for instance), cultural backgrounds, and genders—rather than according to seniority or experience. Team leaders are also deployed on rotation so that, according to Gran, they will “lead in a way that they will want to be led in the next project.” And the firm invites perspective from outside friends, working not only with artists—67 to date—but with scientists and playwrights.

If Snøhetta has a leader, Dykers is it. With a round, dimpled face and a calm but genial demeanor, he upends the stereotypical image of the egotistical, bespectacled architect. The creative stress he talks about goes back to the firm’s very beginnings, when in 1989, a loose band of architects, some (including Dykers) in Los Angeles and some in Oslo, entered the competition to design Egypt’s Alexandria Library—and won. The ensuing years of planning were a logistical nightmare, with the Norway contingent temporarily relocating to L.A. before ultimately settling in Oslo. “We built up a small office, so the Norwegians were out of their element, and even I was outside of my studio space,” Dykers recalls. “Putting yourself outside of your element is what drives you to reconsider things.”

Creating a sense of being slightly off-kilter is one of the defining qualities of Snøhetta’s architecture. Its outstanding Oslo Opera House, for which it won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Prize, appears to rise out of the sea in vast marble tectonic plates, encouraging pedestrians on the harbor to traipse up and down the sloping roof. “People have to engage with the roof in a way that they’re not used to: their bodies physically tilt in different directions,” Dykers says. “At certain times on the roof, you can only see the bulge of the roof, not the city below, just the sky, and you’re transported to a world that is actually natural but feels very unnatural.” In creating a dynamic public space, Snøhetta won over those who had objected to using government money to fund what is perceived as an elitist institution. (The building, incidentally, was completed five months ahead of schedule and $700,000 under budget.)

Snøhetta’s works may lack a unified style—a disconcerting fact for some critics—but they share a strong connection to the landscape and the environment, even if the studio doesn’t formally stress sustainability. “You know,” Dykers says, “all of these projects are either LEED-certified at Silver or Gold, but I don’t normally talk about it, and people always think that if you don’t talk about it, it’s not what you do. I always say, ‘Well, we don’t talk about structure. The building has to stand up, but I don’t have to point it out to anybody.’” Instead, he promotes what he calls “intellectual sustainability,” which goes beyond technological efficiencies, such as window glazing and solar panels, to address fundamental questions: How many homes do I have? How many computers? How much heating and cooling do I really need? “There are a lot of serious shifts that we need to make in terms of how we think of ourselves as humans that are going to have a stronger effect than the notions of utilizing technology,” Dykers says.

At the moment, Snøhetta must face its own uncomfortable question: Can the firm continue to operate as an enlightened practice as it grows larger and harder to manage? “It’s difficult to say no to new work,” says Elaine Molinar, an architect with the firm who has witnessed its evolution since 1989. “When you get to a certain size, you have to feed the machine, which changes the dynamic, so we’re all for slow, measured growth.” The New York office has been hard-pressed to re-create the healthy work-life balance of its Oslo counterpart. Clients in the United States tend to demand more documentation and, therefore, more time. Still, Molinar says, the company is committed to maintaining its ideals as it adjusts to a new place: “Snøhetta is our most important project,” she says. “It always has been and always will be.”

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