Today the same cultural institutions that once lusted after the “iconic” and the “groundbreaking” seek instead to appear both continued on page 92 welcoming to visitors and realistic to donors, and for that reason Snøhetta has risen to the top of the go-to list for museums that want to build. SFMOMA director Neal Benezra, for one, is banking on the firm’s expansion project to make the museum “more transparent, more open, and more engaging to the community.” The unstated hope is that Snøhetta will do what the zeitgeist demands: create something original but not financially perilous—a building that looks daring but comes in under budget.
Although Snøhetta has been in business for more than 20 years, the firm’s prospective American clients tend to be familiar with just one of its buildings—the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, completed in 2008. The opera house, a sharp-edged structure bristling with contained contradictions, juts like a white prow into the Oslo Fjord; its roof is a public park that slopes down to an open plaza at the water’s edge. “You can literally walk on the opera,” Dykers says. “We always say, ‘When you can walk on something, you feel you own it.’” The project cost $420 million but, in deference to the Norwegian aversion to ostentation, it is resolutely low-key. “It can cost what it wants to cost, but don’t make it look expensive,” says Kjetil Thorsen, 53, the firm’s other founding partner. Like their architecture, Dykers and Thorsen are unassuming and approachable. Not for them the dark Prada suits preferred by Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog; unlike those bony, angular architects, the partners appear soft-edged and slightly rumpled, usually clad in jeans and pullovers.
Last fall Simon Ewings, a Snøhetta project architect for the opera house, gave me a tour of the building and its site, which is conveniently reached by crossing a pedestrian bridge near the central train station. Though the main auditorium seats 1,400, it feels both intimate (the maximum distance from stage to audience is about a hundred feet) and warm, with undulating wooden boxes and balconies handmade by a boatbuilding factory in western Norway. “It is just dark wood and red chairs and a glowing chandelier above,” Ewings said. “We didn’t want opulent, gilded decoration. It’s about craftsmanship and showing off your generosity”—generosity being the one area in which Norwegians don’t mind showing off.
Back outside we ambled down to the fjord, which laps gently at the edge of the surrounding plaza—“Getting down to the water; you can’t do that elsewhere in Oslo,” he said—and walked up the rough marble slope that becomes the roof. Occasionally we came across a polished strip or a slight rise, the understated work of three artists paid for with part of the one percent of the capital budget that Norwegian law earmarks to embellish public edifices. “We wanted to integrate it into the building,” Ewings explained, “not use it to buy art to hang on the walls” (although Olafur Eliasson did design a spectacular partition of diamond-shaped lattice for the interior). Arriving at the top of the incline, we saw the contoured aluminum facade, with a relief of bumps derived from a machine card, the sort used in industrial weaving. The aluminum skin encloses what Snøhetta refers to as “the factory”—the plant for wigmaking, costume stitching, and other artisanal activities typically hidden in the bowels of an opera house. Here, the workers can see out the windows, and passersby can look in. For Ewings, the windows serve continued on page 94 the purpose of “demystifying opera,” in line with the firm’s goal to make the art form “more accessible and popular.”