While the building functions well as a performance space, in a more symbolic way it operates as a repository for the country’s self-image. Oil has made Norway rich, with a very wealthy elite, but the nation still likes to see itself as classless, open, and unpretentious, a place where art and craft are incorporated into everyday life and where nature is experienced directly and often. In this reading, the opera house is a kind of self-contained island, complete with a mountain, a sweeping plain, a moat, and a causeway.
Snøhetta owes its very origin to an experiment in ego suppression. In 1989 a competition was announced for the design of a library in Alexandria, Egypt, to replace the ancient one destroyed when Julius Caesar invaded the country. Dykers, then running a small private practice in Los Angeles, decided to enter. A friend put him in touch with Thorsen, who, working in Oslo, was also preparing a scheme for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as it would be known. Eventually a group of architects from Norway and the U.S.—none of them over the age of 30—agreed to collaborate. Of the original eight, only Dykers and Thorsen remain with the firm.
“Many architects would think they could do it by themselves,” says Dykers. “That is old-world-modernist thinking. The building was too socially driven and culturally powerful to work that way.” When they received a phone call announcing that their entry had placed first among 500 contestants worldwide, it was like a lightning strike in a primordial soup, and Snøhetta was jolted into existence. Dykers, a U.S. Army brat who was born in Germany, promptly moved to Oslo, where he would remain for 17 years, until the September 11 project brought him to New York.
The vast Alexandria library, which took 13 years to complete, tested the architects’ stamina. “Many people thought we would be a one-hit wonder,” Dykers recalls. The firm had little interest in commercial or private residential work, its founders preferring to focus on cultural institutions. “If you have the ideal as a young architect that you want to change a portion of society through architecture, that’s where you would start,” Thorsen says. “That’s where perceptions change.”
Their Bibliotheca Alexandrina, instead of recalling the Hellenistic library erected after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, glamorizes the glorious past of the pharaohs. “We didn’t want an icon,” Dykers says, not entirely convincingly, of the hieroglyph-inscribed granite facade and tilted-disc roof, “but a blank canvas that people could project on.” The city’s young people, in particular, care for the building enough to physically defend it: When Egypt erupted in sometimes violent demonstrations in late January, dozens of students gathered to form a human cordon to protect the Bibliotheca, which remained untouched amid the surrounding chaos.