This summer DAC - the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen - continued their well-established series of exhibitions that focus on single architectural firms with people process and projects about Snøhetta, the architectural studio based in Oslo and New York.
Snøhetta is the name of a mountain outside Oslo and was chosen by Craig Dykers and Kjetil Trædal Thorsen when they established their architecture, landscape design and branding company in 1989. Snøhetta are now a major international practice with projects ongoing in Europe, the USA and the Middle East.
At DAC there were four sections to the exhibition with the first and largest space dedicated to the people, the organisation and the philosophy or approach of the studio. In part here was a reconstruction of key elements of the Oslo office or elements that at least evoked the Oslo studio with sofas around a table and a set of steps - both important places where staff and clients can sit informally to discuss projects - and the ceiling treatment in Oslo was reproduced with plastic bags full of water hung from wires.
Photographs in this section showed the large communal lunch table that can also be used as a space for spreading out work for discussion. Snøhetta “believe taking time to share meals with our colleagues is critical to our process. Human interaction shapes the spaces we design and the way we operate.”
Text panels emphasised how professional staff in the studio are encouraged to move through the various disciplines to bring a new perspective to different aspects of the work. They call this transpositioning. “It defies narrow-minded thinking and encourages holistic approaches.”
The second section of the exhibition showed the central role of the modelling shop, another part of the design process, and formed the link through to the section about the main buildings from the company.
Here, in the third area, there was a wall of photographs showing and identifying eighty or so of the main projects by Snøhetta and, nearby, a large touch screen where it was possible to find further information and there were a number of models, including the opera house in Oslo, and a section of the facing of a facade formed one display wall containing smaller models and artefacts. A number of screens along another wall showed interviews and so on including a video of the Oslo opera house in winter with a figure snowboarding down the slope of the roof.
There was also a clever idea with photographs of a large number of the projects reproduced with information on the back and with punched holes at the top of each so they could be hung from steel pins across one wall and visitors were invited to take copies of the pages they wanted to form their own guide book.
A huge range of building styles are presented here but I suppose that is inevitable given the time-span covered and the size of the practice now although you can see some themes or ideas reappearing … so, for instance, the shift and slide of building planes as if on tectonic plates at the National Opera House in Oslo, the Memorial Pavilion in New York and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, although those three buildings have very different facing materials and very different underlying geometric forms.
The text of the exhibition does not state it outright but presumably Snøhetta are more concerned with architectural solutions rather than a consistent architectural style and diversity would, in any case, be a consequence of their debate-lead project system. Curiously the text and interviews imply a certain amount of introspection in contrast to the huge self-confidence of the buildings they produce so the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre Pavilion, for instance, is hardly overawed by the grandeur of it’s natural setting and the combination of stark iron box on the mountain slope with its huge glass front but organic sculptural wood interior is anything but circumspect.
Gallery space on the first floor, outside the cafe, was filled with a series of wooden pods with sloping ends and pitched roofs. Called On Top of the Mountain, this is a self-contained section of the exhibition aimed at families and children with photographs and information about smaller buildings from Snøhetta that are set in the natural landscape rather than in the urban setting of most of the larger building projects shown on the ground floor.
Here the emphasis was even more clearly on social sustainability and environmental sustainability - a strong part of the studio's ethos … “We actively seek technical solutions that provide the most economical and natural systems for minimising the environmental impact of the buildings we design.”
Buildings here included Tverrfjellhytta, the pavilion for the Wild Reindeer Centre, and images for a new hotel that will snake down a slope to follow the side of the mountain at Lofoten.
Perhaps I am becoming too cynical in my old age but as I worked my way around the exhibition I began to hear more and more the input of a brand manager in the extensive text and I became frustrated by what appeared to me to be two significant omissions in the material presented.
Many of the buildings shown here are extremely sophisticated structures and require extensive and very technical engineering solutions ... particularly for projects such as the proposed floating bridge that could be constructed to cross Rovde fjord near Ålesund ... but there was no discussion anywhere in the exhibition about engineers, engineering, or the ways that collaboration between architect and engineer was required nor how, sometimes, there must have been a conflict between a concept and the reality of the actual construction process.
And, with some of the projects being not just large but incredibly complicated, in terms of their functions and therefore planning, I was curious that there were no plans shown for any of the buildings … the closest we got to a plan was in some of the photographs of the studio that showed staff apparently discussing a building over its plan. I know that some visitors to an exhibition, who are not involved in architecture professionally, find plans either difficult to understand or less interesting than models but one of the important aspects of the Snøhetta practice is that their projects cover such a huge range of type, size and function of building. It would be interesting to see at least some discussion of how a team works on a hugely complicated building such as the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which must have had an amazingly complex brief setting out standards for book storage, the requirements for conservation and problems to control light and heat in public reading spaces, or for the opera house in Oslo with its integration of public spaces, highly technical requirements for the performance space, back-stage areas for workshops, complex circulation for public and service areas and complicated massing determined by existing road systems, surrounding urban landscape and the natural topography with such a prominent site on the harbour running down to the edge of the water. Much of that could have been done with simplified plans or good diagrams. Understanding how ideas evolve, how plan and space interrelate and how problems are resolved is more interesting and more important than a beautiful photograph of a facade.
A more thorough if brief analysis of the how the design of the opera house in Oslo evolved would, of course, be interesting in this city where just down the harbour from DAC is Copenhagen's own opera house. Compare and contrast exercises tend to be an academic's approach but could be a way to get a wider audience to think critically about their major public buildings in terms, not just of how they look, but in terms of how they work day to day - how they work as public spaces and how they contribute to or interrupt the existing social structure of a neighbourhood and how they fit into the existing urban setting or ignore it.
* Some books and on-line sites give the year the company was founded as 1987.
A recently published book People Process Projects is available and the exhibition at DAC continues until 27 September 2015.