When you visit the headquarters of the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, on the Oslo Fjord, you see, upon entering, an open kitchen and pass a long table where architects discuss projects over homemade meals. The only enclosed spaces, either here or in the company’s lower Manhattan satellite, are a modelmaking shop and a sound-insulated conference room, both of which are outfitted with windows. Employees sit in a large bull pen, with senior staffers and project teams dispersed randomly. In short, it is all so nonhierarchical, so collaborative, and so transparent that it could only be Scandinavian.
This open approach goes a long way toward explaining how a stealth firm largely unknown outside the architecture community has scored such a remarkable string of recent successes in the United States. Last July Snøhetta beat out a murderers row of hard-hitting architects—including Lord Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro—to secure the commission for a $250 million annex to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That same month the firm was awarded the daunting task of reconfiguring Times Square in an attempt to allow New Yorkers and tourists to coexist more happily. And already under construction in proximity to Snøhetta’s New York office is the only building that will rise on the footprint of the destroyed World Trade Center: the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the aboveground portion of which was designed by Snøhetta and is scheduled for completion this September.
The memorable buildings of the late 20th century were defined by a master architect’s poetic inspiration, cantankerous struggle, and ultimate triumph: Frank Gehry’s protracted and combative back-and-forth with then director Thomas Krens for the Guggenheim Bilbao, say, or Renzo Piano’s renovation of Manhattan’s Morgan Library, sketched out with a felt-tip pen over dinner with the institution’s director after a quick walk-through of the site. Craig Dykers, 49, a cofounder of Snøhetta, characterizes works like these as “old-world modernism,” a genre defined by architects he describes as “hierarchical and master driven”—and who, in his view, are yesterday’s news. “They tend to avoid engagements with wider groups of people,” he explains. “New-world modernists look to engage with people who have different opinions.” Instead of forcefully overcoming opposition to push through a project, the new-world architect adopts an alternate posture: incorporating antagonistic viewpoints in a process to enhance the original scheme. “We’re consensus driven and group oriented—and we don’t think that waters down design,” says Dykers. “We think that strengthens design.” The proof is in the buildings: Notwithstanding Snøhetta’s conciliatory stance, its best architecture doesn’t look as if it was designed by corporate committee. It is confident, even bold.