Snohetta came to town on Wednesday. Snohetta is the name of white capped mountain that towers above a wild reindeer calving range, the last one on the planet. It is a place of grace and extraordinary beauty. Snohetta is also the name of a Norwegian architecture firm, the only architects among the top 50 innovative companies in the world.
The company began just 22 years ago when a group of young architects located in Oslo, all of them under 30, all of the distinguished by nothing more than they were young and architects entered the competition for UNESCO’s library to be built in Alexandria in commemoration of Alexandria’s first and at the time, the world’s largest and most important library.
Over 500 competitive bids were qualified from 77 different countries, and 200 were short listed for closer scrutiny. The judges never knew the names of the competitors. The competition was based on what was proposed, nothing more.
Snohetta won. When they arrived dishevelled, young, long haired and without important clothes. The organizers of the competition asked where was Mr. Snohetta? They couldn’t believe that a ragamuffin group could have won such an important competition, but they had. The Alexandria library has risen again and gone on to new glory. During the recent political upheavals, Alexandrians both pro and anti Mubarak formed a human chain around the library to protect it.
Snohetta has gone on to new glory also. They have won the competitions for the Ground Zero memorial in New York, the Oslo Opera and Ballet theatre, Times Square renovation and rebuild, Sam the Record Man in Toronto. They also have important non human clients – birds and reindeer. (Nests for birds in house walls, safe viewing places to protect calving reindeer). They seem to do it all with a remarkable lack of pomposity and a lots of buoyant cheer. Their Oslo Office is divided into a large kitchen and a work area. The work area is refectory tables which double as lunch tables and the principals sit in with everyone else. There are no corner offices.
The products of their Oslo and New York offices will last for a long time because people love them. The Oslo Opera Hall has more people using the outside of the building than the inside and once you see pictures of how the building connects and integrates itself with the water at the harbour side, with the city and with the sky, you can see why. It’s a building which is part of the landscape rather than sitting on it.
The Snohetta lecture was given by one Sonhetta’s founder’s Craig Dykers and the two hours flew by like two minutes. At the end, I asked one question: Did Mr. Dykers think competitions were a good idea? He replied that he thought they were because they gave the young a chance to compete with the old, established firms. He speculated that with the rate architectural firms are merging if in a few years there will be just a couple of giants with thousands of employees each.
I said nothing more and went home content to have heard such a story, but in the back of my mind, unable to go away, I could not help but think of Lansdowne Park, also next to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We could have had this kind of world wide competition there as they had in Alexandria, New York, Oslo, and it is possible Snohetta would have won. What would they have brought us?