With the opening last month of a massively expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and coming on the heels of landmark projects like the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, the Norwegian practice Snøhetta has established itself as one of the most acclaimed architecture firms on the planet. But unlike many of its competitors for the world’s top commissions, Snøhetta is not centered around one marquee name.
This week, a retrospective of Snøhetta’s work, “People, Process, Projects” closes at the Center for Architecture in Portland, Ore., where the firm has two local projects in the works, the James Beard Public Market and the Willamette Falls Riverwalk. Installed last year at the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen, the exhibition seeks to elucidate and further the idea that the firm’s culture is not one of top-down directives but an immersive and democratic process of discovery in which the best design ideas—be they from a principal or an intern—win out. ARCHITECT recently interviewed Craig Dykers, AIA, a founding partner of Snøhetta, about the firm’s culture and process.
ARCHITECT: Snøhetta is able to successfully compete with the biggest architectural names—the “starchitects” of today—while maintaining a more collaborative interior culture. How do you maintain that while opening offices in many different cities? Some firms can lose their way when they become bigger. How have you avoided that dilution?
Dykers: When you work on large-scale public projects, you have to learn how to, at times release, to let go, not to have every single person work on every single project and be in control of every single idea and manipulate every conversation. Part of the joy of working in the public realm is that it’s very unexpected. Things are at times out of control. It’s managing the messiness that’s valuable. And one great way to do that is through numbers: numbers of people. It’s a misconception that great works of design can only come through a single voice with a powerful weapon of some variety. We think that you overcome the odds by having great numbers of people instilling their ideas and trying to build momentum around positive ideas. And the more people that speak, the easier it is to see and talk about which ideas are valuable, and ones that maybe are not so valuable—you’re able to push some things to the side and move other ones forward. Everybody’s involved in making the suit, and that’s okay. When you have people over to your house for a party, you like for people to help you prepare the meal. That’s the fun part.
But getting a diverse group of people in a room doesn’t necessarily always foster collaboration. If everyone is staking a claim to their own specialty and you’re just going around the table voicing your specialty, that’s not really helpful. We try, at least at times, to talk about things that are outside of our expertise, where people can take a risk to talk about something that they’re not familiar with.
Snøhetta’s offices, like many today, are open and non-hierarchical so employees can easily collaborate. Could you talk about some of the places where good ideas seem to most often happen? Is it at the lunch table, or at a group of sofas, in the model shop, or somewhere else? All of the above?
Today we have campgrounds in the office for projects. Since people working on a project don’t often sit next to each other, we made collection spaces for people to gather in. They are not enclosed places and are a part of the open studio, they provide a place of continuity amidst the sparks of activity around us. This is where a good deal of creative thinking happens. Also, we often sit in huddles around people’s desks, and this is always a great way to gain perspective. I would say the largest blasts of original thinking happens when we use our kitchen/eating/meeting space for open workshops. In this big room it is common for bigger projects to begin. These gatherings can get rowdy.
The firm also builds consensus and works toward a design through charrettes and workshops. But are there still times when the majority opinion (from the public or even in-house) winds up not being the direction a design goes? Are there times where you or other members of the firm’s leadership say, “We need to make the more counter-intuitive move this time”?
A workshop does not have the goal that the direction with the most votes wins. Workshops are not about creating winning ideas. They are about building empathy and desire. Sometimes that means a popular idea moves forward, sometimes it does not. But whatever happens the thinking of the workshop lingers in the minds of the design team responsible for carrying out the work. We try to remove the notion of competition in the making of ideas, this helps to build consensus. So to say that an idea “wins” simply mean it has innate strength, not that it necessarily overrides its partners. This strength can be delivered by anyone who has the urge. Sometimes it takes time to build this level of confidence in people who have been told to stay put or to only think alone.
What’s your assessment of the skills young architects do and don’t have coming out of school today? Clearly they’re technically savvy and perhaps increasingly socially conscious. But are there other skills you’d like to see architecture schools cultivate more?
We continue to stress getting people into the model shop. This is becoming harder. We generally have to entice people into the model shop with technology. It is still hard to find people who want to get their hands dirty. We have a few people in the office who often create exceptional models and when this happens they get praise and applause from others in the studio. So the feeling is there, if not always apparent. More importantly though, we are worried about the ability for young people to easily understand the world outside of the studio, to connect with engineers, clients, officials and users. There is more and more a tendency to be selfish, even if that is unconscious.
Is there any kind of project type out there that the firm hasn’t done that you would like to see Snøhetta do? It’s sometimes said that art museums (like SFMOMA) are the cathedrals of our time. But whether it’s small or large, what might be a new frontier for the company?
Each new project is a new frontier. We often feel we are imaginary explorers on a planet that we can see but can only dream of walking upon. As we move forward we imagine that we will be able to have greater influence upon a wider spectrum of needs, that our work can serve a greater purpose than its purely formal understanding. We remain political in our goals, we wish to embellish diverse understanding, to bring people into a world where we can accept differences, to motivate ourselves to be better in building societies that have many layers of care, understanding, energized by connections rather than divisions. As designers then we hope to create the world on the head of pin and bring the tiniest detail to the largest things we can imagine.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery to view more work by Snøhetta.