“I think of their work as motivated by the big gesture—it’s one idea, it’s not complicated, and it’s usually a good one,” observes Liz Diller, who says that losing the SFMOMA job to them was “less torturous” because she respects their designs. (In December, Diller’s firm was bested by Snøhetta in another competition, this one for a Museum of Environmental Science, at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico.) And while the architects with whom they compete all teach and publish—running into one another at conferences and serving together on competition juries—Dykers and Thorsen largely eschew the circuit. “They’re very quiet,” says Diller. “They’re not absent, but they’re not central. Everyone is very curious about who they are.”
I thought I might learn something about Snøhetta the firm if I visited Snøhetta the mountain, the tallest peak in the Dovre chain, in a remote part of central Norway. (In Norse mythology, Dovre is where Valhalla, the home of the gods, is situated.)
In a former military firing range and mining reserve at the foot of the snowy, mist-covered peak is another Snøhetta design: a viewing pavilion for Norway’s Wild Reindeer Center, set to open this spring in what will soon be a national park. From the time they set up the firm, the partners resolved to pursue landscape architecture as vigorously as architecture, and the new pavilion can be regarded as a kind of Norwegian gazebo. It consists of a rectangular shed made of rusting steel, with a sinuous, self- contained interior of wood milled by the same boatbuilders who fabricated the balconies of the opera house. The long side of the pavilion, which faces the mountain, is all glass. “It’s a small building in a big landscape,” says Knut Bjørgum, the architect in charge of the project.
Dykers and Thorsen chose the sacred mountain as their namesake partly because their first offices were located above a scuzzy bar named Dovrehallen. The moniker is a joke, both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating—but it was also a self-conscious attempt to avoid the personal branding of older firms. “Where is Mr. Snøhetta?” an Egyptian official asked when the first delegation of architects arrived in Alexandria following their competition victory.
The ability to create work that functions as a mirror, reflecting back what the onlooker likes to see, has undoubtedly helped the firm withstand the controversy surrounding the September 11 Memorial. From the beginning, the project has been buffeted by the desires of competing groups. “That it would be difficult, we knew,” Thorsen says. “That it would be as difficult and challenging as it was, we didn’t. But there is a stubbornness—we don’t want to give up. It’s not really about designing a building. It’s about negotiating a project.”