On the top of Snøhetta

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Mount Snøhetta

The black-green forest, covered with snow, climbed up the slopes.
Above, the rocky mountains stood white-grey, with vast planes of snow spotted here and there with dark noses of stone, and with ridges vanishing in the air.
It was snowing.
Everything was fading away.
When he stood still in order not to hear himself, the silence was absolute and perfect, a softened, unknown, never-heard-before quietness, without no solution possible.
There was no breath of wind to caress the trees, not a whisper, not a bird singing.
Castorp, leant on his stick, his head bent on his shoulder, was listening to that primeval silence; and the snow kept falling down quiet, endless, noiseless.
Behind the whitened rocks, he found a slope, then a plateau, and another high mountain, the stuffed passages of which seemed accessible and inviting to him.
The attraction of the mountain and its highness, of the ever-new solitudes that were waiting for him, was very powerful in his soul indeed, so he entered that silent desert even with the risk to be late.
He stopped and looked around, there was nothing to see, nowhere, except for tiny snowflakes falling from the upper whiteness and laying down on the whiteness below, and the silence all around was huge and speechless.
While his look broke against the dazzling void, he felt his heart beginning to beat faster and faster because of the climbing.

It’s Hans Castorp, young protagonist of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who accompanies us in climbing the mountain, in the whiteness and quietness of a snowy top, that for us is – today – the mount Snøhetta, one of the highest Norwegian mountains, whose name is also the one of the main architecture studio of the Nordic country.

This name was actually chosen almost by chance by Cetil Thorsen and Craig Dikers in 1989 for their new group professional activity: this well-known name, with the distinctive slashed O, is synonym of a projecting method deeply rooted in the long Scandinavian cultural tradition, according to which architecture is strictly linked to people, nature and climate.


Snøhetta, Lillehammer Art Museum, 1994

From the top of the mountain emerging in the Nordic landscape, Snøhetta has developed, work by work, a vast and deep look on the world, a look dropped from the top not for ambition or hierarchic reasons but for a willing of gaining an omnicomprehensive perspective that, without preconceptions or bias, is free to understand the complexity of reality and gives specific and articulated answers to contemporary instances.

The studio numbers nowadays more than a hundred people coming from 17 countries and distributed in the two locations of Oslo, the historical main office, and New York, a veritable cultural incubator useful to constantly renew the staff. Snøhetta’s activity is based on a multi-disciplinary approach and on a democratic philosophy that animates articulated and multi-graduated interventions, in the domains of architecture, landscape projecting and interior design. Snøhetta’s works develop in several intervention types: educational and cultural buildings, offices and institutional architectures, small commercial structures, experimental locations for the arts and sports, temporary architectures and installations, public squares, natural paths and private gardens.

If we got to Oslo, in the Snøhetta office set in front of the harbour, we could fully understand the values and dynamics of this participative working method without any hierarchy. We’d seat at long tables where projects are developed collectively through conversations, we’d see meetings taking place in transparent rooms, we’d witness workshop activities with handcraft tools and CNC machines for creating scale or mock up models; invited by the smell of the food, we’d finally enter the kitchen open space to have lunch in a convivial moment considered integral part of the working day.


Inside Snøhetta’s office in Oslo

Listening, communicating, respecting the suggestions of the various figures from the customer to the builder,
strongly influence the architectural processes Snøhetta develops within the valorisation of local cultures, the social commitment, and the strong link with the environmental context. Works like the Museum in Lillehammer (1994), the Fishing Museum in Karmoy (1998), the Sandivika cultural centre, and the Petter Daas Museum (2007) demonstrate the studio’s efforts in order to stress the importance of local cultures and memories, sustaining craftsmanship and manual arts, and supporting democratization and decentralization of cultural activities even in the farthest locations.

Along with the search for a genuine and overt relationship with natural and human environments, Snøhetta’s architecture develops a distinctive syncretism of styles: it presents sometimes the characters of a friendly monumental eclecticism, some others the elementary shapes of a minimal conceptualism, and others the sinuous shapes of a liquid modernity, managing to express messages always perfectly recognizable, rich in intellectual contents aimed to the global world.
Staying constant in this strongly accessible research, in this well-thought configuration of functional and distributional textures and in a refined attention to formal ad material aspects of architecture, Snøhetta expresses in this way an aesthetics of dynamic shapes in numerous variations: densifications, rarefactions, passages, twists, cornered profiles, oblique lines, box-like volumes, wrapping surfaces.
This syncretic practice, mixing materials and languages in a process that can be continuously regenerated and expanded, is not developed from a single theory, but condenses different thoughts and critical approaches, from the more architecture-aimed ones –  like Bob Somol’s, Sarah Whiting’s or Christopher Alexander’s, to the ones borrowed from similar disciplines like aesthetics or land art.
Working in a global scale, Snøhetta renovates the Scandinavian tradition of architects with a pragmatical and International approach like Alvar Aalto, Jorn Utzon, Ralph Erskine, and Sverre Fehn, consolidating not only a language, but also a style and a method able to turn architecture into a cultural ambassador often linked to high-level social and political commitments.


Snøhetta, Oslo Opera House, 2008

Notable architectures in this domain are the Alexandria Library, for the projecting of which Snøhetta studio was founded in 1989, the 11th September Memorial – a current project of the studio, or the Oslo Opera House built between 2000 and 2008. This last in particular can be mentioned as a highly symbolical paradigm of their working philosophy.

The projecting of the theatre, guided in each step by the studio, was extremely articulated; 50 firms worked in the site in order to create a building of huge dimensions, highly technologically advanced and rich in cultural and symbolical values, not only in relation to the city it is located in but also for the entire Norwegian community.
Destined to host the activities of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, the building was conceived as the central point of a bigger re-qualification of the Olso harbour side and it rises, completely covered with Carrara marble, from the water of the city fjord, as a monumental tribute to the great value the country assigns to the culture of opera and theatre.
The projectors’ aim was to re-create a fragment of Arctic pack, a sort of candid piece of pack ice stranded near the little Bjørvika peninsula – place where people historically meets in the Norwegian capital town, giving life to an architectural volume defined by a series of inclined surfaces, mostly of them being used as public terraces oriented toward the bay.
The homogeneity of the stone external covering, a continuous surface in marble only varied by the different patterns of several finishes, transmits the suggestion of a white solid monolith, a new celebration of the Nordic landscape – this time in a marine context – generated by the intersection of plans with varied inclinations that touch themselves always with oblique corners, never orthogonal, in order to form a great frozen reef.
This enormous “crystal” rises from the liquid element fixing with it a complex relationship; the architecture is set at the same time as an element distinguishable at long distance in the landscape and as a connective urban element that links the city to the water: on sunny days the sea reflects the stone form and enriches it with luminous reflections; the white, subtly grey-veined marble is in a contrastive duality – in colours and shapes – with the dark waters of the fjord.
Projected by Snøhetta with a refined choice of materials and a decided definition of construction details, the building expresses a plain and engaging monumental aspect, obtained expanding the horizontal dimension instead of the vertical one; the concepts of free access and incentive to social aggregation are the basis of this project that allows the direct entrance to the theatre foyer straight from the city or the immediate contact with water, and then going up again, with different inclinations, to the passable belvedere roof.


Snøhetta, Ras Al Khaimah Gateway Project, under construction

Nowadays Snøhetta’s work keeps going on and, with an almost Romantic attitude, it has accepted to face the great forces of a completely different nature, not again the Nordic one but the sunny and heated Arab desert of Dhahran and Ras Al Khaima, once again two important cultural buildings.
But in order to do this, it’s time to climb again the mountain, to follow our architects in the trip they have every year in this season.
We’ll do that together.
On the top of Snøhetta, we’ll leave behind us the climbing path with the past results, directing ouserselves to the realisation of many projects, we’ll leave the cultural and architectural stories set and narrated in formal coordinates that change and renew in every single work.
In front of us only the mountain sky and landscape, both of them bare, pure, white; so white that we are blinded for a moment, loosing orientation and every known truth, every security, every preconception, in order to let ourselves face new vital and pure projects, with an analytic and imaginative powerful force that can only be granted by an elevated sight dropped from the top.

by Davide Turrini