Firm description: A global family of 120 architects and landscape architects, some based in New York, most of them in Oslo, Norway, it will soon be exporting its design intelligence to two Canadian cities. Started two decades ago by kids fresh out of architecture school, its employees now find design consensus by breaking bread at long dining tables, and annually climbing Snohetta, one of the highest peaks in Norway. Capable of groundbreaking architecture, its accomplishments include the mesmerizing Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, and acts of guerrilla activism whereby dozens of designer birdhouses were surreptitiously wedged between the cracks of New York's buildings and trees.
Latest firm challenge: To deliver fantastic, enduring work in Canada. Impressively, the firm has recently won competitions to heighten the cultural brand of two Ontario universities: Ryerson's $100-million Student Learning Centre, at an aesthetically starved swath of Toronto's Yonge Street; and a new performing-arts venue at Queen's University in Kingston, on a gorgeous spread of land on Lake Ontario.
Hip, wise and cheeky, this global firm has grown up to become a poster child for meaningful acts of design. Just this week, Snohetta was officially commissioned to formally declutter, and elegantly demarcate, the pedestrianization of Broadway at Times Square in Manhattan. And in that same city, after a Byzantine political process at ground zero, construction is finally starting on Snohetta's National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Meanwhile, one of Snohetta's principals, Craig Dykers, just returned from Guatemala City, where he designed, pro bono, public street benches for an impoverished city covered in ash from a volcano that erupted in late May.
On Thursday evening, Dykers arrived in Canada to open an exhibition of Snohetta's international portfolio of work at the Cambridge Galleries, about an hour west of Toronto. The exhibition, which includes renderings of the Queen's University project, was previously displayed at Scandinavia House in New York.
The greatest challenge for Snohetta these days is not attracting more work, but managing to hold on to its daring - characterized by innovative, sculptural forms and a poignant use of materials - without simply becoming a production house of design that's sweet, slick and cool.
Matching the aggressive rhythm of the land with fearsome architecture is what Snohetta does best.
For the Petter Dass Museum (2007) in Alstahaug, Norway, Snohetta negotiated a deep cut into a massive outcrop of black granite in order to thrust a 70-metre-long steel-and-glass canopy from the depths of the rock.
For the Oslo Opera House, Snohetta created a powerful piece of architectural sculpture to rebrand, seemingly overnight, a former industrial brownfield site located on a fjord that had been heavily polluted for nearly two centuries. Jutting out over the fjord is a glass cube, surrounded below and on top by giant horizontal blades. One blade is actually a major public square. The other is the opera's roof. A large section of the opera house is located at sea level or under water. It's a mighty confrontation between civilization and nature.
Clad in 37,000 pieces of marble, the flat roof is designed so that the public can walk on it. Two ferry terminals are located about 100 metres away, and cruise ships amble by on a regular basis. Now, that's a splendid example of how to activate a once-forgotten and abused waterfront.
Though Dykers is now inching toward 50, there's something of the guerrilla architect left in him, the same guy with the cherubic smile and dimples who conspired in 1989 to team up with friends, and friends of friends - all fresh architecture graduates - to design a competition entry for the hugely significant Alexandrina library. Working from a rental apartment in Los Angeles, the loose affiliation of young architects, including several from Oslo, beat out 500 competitors from 52 countries.As much monumental sculpture as it is library, the 800,000-square-foot building is a tilted disc clad in granite, set down like a spaceship within a reflecting pool and public square, across a busy thoroughfare from the Mediterranean. Its granite facade is covered in hieroglyphics of all the world's known languages. Its circular rooftop features a three-dimensional pattern of triangular skylights; natural light streams into work areas.
The Queen's University Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts will incorporate an outdoor plaza and seating, and a bike route that passes through the site, while leaving the Lake Ontario shoreline intact. Although there has been much controversy over spending at Queen's in recent years, the project, says Dykers, is going ahead with solid contributions from the federal government and private sponsors.
Work on the infrastructure has begun, and the final construction documents will be prepared over the next six months. The new centre, sited down the road from the university's main campus, aligns sympathetically with existing historic warehouses on the waterfront site. Its base is limestone, and some of the timbers from derelict buildings on the site will be used for interior finishes.
Despite those promising gestures, I'm less convinced by Dykers's reliance on easy metaphors to inspire the choice of the building's exterior metal panel system. He says he's referencing the "shiny and glistening" qualities of Lake Ontario, and the moments when water turns to ice. But is that just poetry invented for a banal and cheap cladding system?
For the Ryerson Student Learning Centre, designed in collaboration with Toronto-based Zeidler Partnership Architects, Dykers speaks of the need to respect a typical student's desire, at this hands-on university, to chill out and get creative. "One of the things that students like is a place where they can get messy and dirty," he says. "Sometimes they need places where they can be clean, but they also need to work in an environment that transcends relaxation and focused intellectual work, where they can do slightly rougher work, and not in highly pristine interiors."
To Dykers - and design has yet to begin - that might mean exposed concrete and plenty of open workshop areas with various ways to see into them from down below or across large rooms. But too much exposed concrete can actually produce a dehumanizing building. That's the last thing Ryerson needs.
At the gritty corner of Gould Street, where Sam the Record Man used to flog its stuff, the 10-storey building presents Ryerson with a critical moment to engage its students - and the citizens of Toronto - with architecture that's wonderfully mesmerizing. The challenge for Dykers will be to create spaces that inspire collaboration without looking corporate and buttoned-down.
Listen closely to the YouTube video that Dykers made on Yonge Street with co-architect Tarek El-Khatib, a senior partner at Zeidler. When asked what they wanted for their new learning centre, the kids interviewed ask for something "daring" with "natural light" and a space invested with a "soul."
Sounds to me that what informed Oslo's opera and Alexandria's library are what those students are angling for right here in Canada. Why should that be surprising? In any language, in any culture, that's what people - young and old - deserve.