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Arts Building the future: How Snohetta is rewriting the rules of global architecture and landscape

What is Craig Dykers doing in the corner? It’s a week before the opening of the new Ryerson Student Learning Centre in Toronto, and Dykers, its lead architect, is touring its most dramatic space: Nicknamed “the Beach,” it’s a cavernous, two-storey room whose floor slopes down through a zigzag of wooden terraces. It’s studded with angled columns and its glass façades are printed with a pattern of twisted polygons.

Yet Dykers, of the firm Snohetta, is focusing his attention on a small nook where a bench meets the wall. “I think people are going to gather here,” he says. “This is a natural landscape more than a room, and people will find their own places.”

Natural? This is the crowded, grimy centre of downtown Toronto, and the 155,000-square-foot building doesn’t resemble anything in nature, except perhaps a giant block of ice that’s melting at the bottom.

But its formal and ornamental splashes serve a human purpose. “In the building, you get the feeling of change everywhere you go,” Dykers tells me later. “And that’s part of a learning centre: Getting people to move, to be active, to not notice their world is expanding.”

The Ryerson Student Learning Centre is a 155,000-square-foot building with ornamental splashes that serve a human purpose. (Younes Bounhar & Amanda Large | DoubleSpace Photography)

This is Snohetta’s work: Design that makes you think. Led by Dykers in New York and Kjetil Thorsen in Oslo, the firm works in architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design and branding. And in the past few years, they’ve quietly become one of the world’s leading design firms. They have more than 60 ambitious projects under way, including Calgary’s New Central Library and an expansion of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.

Each of their projects, though, reveals a truth about design in 2015: To make a building or a landscape is a hugely complex and collaborative business. Many famous architects obscure that fact, and present themselves like fashion designers, delivering a tight brand and a singular sensibility. Snohetta carry themselves like a collective of filmmakers: Their work has no set style and no manifesto. It is visually bold, but shaped by observation and empathy.

Snohetta’s rise comes at a time when the design world is caught between grandiosity and modesty. The downturn of 2008-09 marked the end of the Starchitect Era: an anomalous decade-long period in which architects assumed a new authority as sculptors of form that could transform cities, as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did Bilbao in 1997. Today, a few celebrities, such as Gehry and Zaha Hadid, continue to carry such cachet. But many younger architects profess an interest in socially responsible design, sustainability, and a more pragmatic and ego-less style of working.

The result can be design that is stimulating but also comfortable, such as the lobby of the Ryerson building. After my tour with Dykers, we sit with his colleague Michael Cotton and their collaborators from Toronto’s Zeidler Architects to talk. It isn’t yet open to the public, but soon three young women walk through the front doors, sit down next to us on a set of wooden bleachers and start eating their lunches. Dykers smiles. “This is what we’re looking for,” he says. In this case, it is public space that invites you to sit down, and gives you space to do it. “You can’t tell people what to do,” Dykers says. “You can only make suggestions.”

The Ryerson Student Learning Centre in Toronto. (Lorne Bridgman)

Reluctant icons

It is almost dark, but the signs and screens in Times Square are shining brighter than ever – and at my feet, the pavement is shimmering, too. Small steel discs in the paving stones catch the light, signalling to me where to walk. “We want people to be affected by this, even if they aren’t aware of it,” Claire Fellman, a landscape architect and director at Snohetta, explains, half-shouting over the din of the crowd.

The firm’s New York office has reconstructed the plaza here, in the busiest public space in North America. It’s a painstaking and deceptively simple piece of landscape architecture – much of the work, rearranging utilities and communication infrastructure, is invisible. Yet it is of a piece with their buildings. “It has to do with fostering social interaction and a generous contribution to the public realm,” Fellman says. “What we talked about on this project is what we talk about when we design a lobby: comfort, orientation and performance.”

And Times Square shows how well they can shepherd people. Where the plaza meets roadways, the ground plane slopes down gently and opens up to greet you; there are no curbs to trip on and plenty of room where you want to stand. The shape of the plaza guides you along. “We try to create ‘nudges,’” Dykers says, “small characteristics that allow people to make their way through the space and feel in command.”

In this respect, Dykers cites the influence of Temple Grandin, the famous observer and theorist of animal behaviour. “Where she says ‘cow,’ you can substitute ‘human,’” Dykers tells me, “and it makes perfect sense.” What’s most valuable, he adds, is Grandin’s scientist’s mindset: observing her subjects, not making rules for them. This is the sort of empirical, empathetic approach that drives all good design.

One of Snohetta’s Canadian projects is the Isabel Bader Centre in Kingston. (Younes Bounhar & Amanda Large)

Over the past decade, Snohetta has shown a remarkable aptitude for it – and for the seemingly opposite skill of designing memorable grand gestures. “I don’t like the word ‘icon,’ but sometimes it sneaks out,” Dykers says with a smile.

With commissions such as the $365-million (U.S.) SFMOMA project and a new headquarters for Le Monde in Paris, Snohetta is approaching the top tier of global designers in architecture and making a real mark in landscape architecture, too. This summer, the firm announced new commissions for an important market hall in Portland, Ore., and a gondola in the Italian Alps.

Snohetta runs in a genuinely collaborative manner: While a design is in development at the New York office, everyone sits together at one long table to hash out ideas. “You don’t always get what you want,” Dykers says. “Half the time, I lose the argument.” Dykers and Thorsen are also happy with a degree of anonymity. The firm took its name from a Norwegian mountain, choosing not put their names on the door; they have never changed that policy.

In 1989 they were a loose collective of young designers, including Elaine Molinar; Molinar and Dykers would marry, and she is now Snohetta’s managing director. They spent five weeks working on an open global competition for a new Library of Alexandria in Egypt. To their shock, they won. “It was a good thing we were young and naive,” Dykers says of the library, which was completed after 12 years of tribulations in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. “Now, we’ve been through hell and back, so we’re pretty relaxed about most things.”

That’s easy enough to believe. Dykers, 53, has the strong laugh lines and balding pate of a frequent-flying Buddha. Born in Germany to an American father and a British mother, he has lived most of his life in Europe. Like many successful expatriates, he is soft-spoken and an attentive reader of people and places.

The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, which is at Queen’s University, is a loose agglomeration of prisms and slabs with a tightly detailed but unfussy hall. (Lorne Bridgman)

These qualities were useful in small, egalitarian Norway, where the firm grew through the 1990s. Their breakout, in 2001, was the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo. On the inside, it is a no-nonsense cultural complex; on the outside, a cluster of pale wedges that let you walk onto the roof of the hall and right down into Oslo Fjord. It is part landscape, part building, highly functional and very sculptural.

“Our buildings are strangely formally aggressive,” Dykers admits. “They stand there proud of who they are. But we think of performance first.”

All thoughtful architects claim this about their work. Snohetta delivers.

The Oslo opera house received uniformly strong reviews for its acoustics; so has the firm’s first project in Canada, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen’s University in Kingston, which opened last fall. Overseen by Snohetta’s Takeshi Tornier with N45 Architects of Ottawa, it is a loose agglomeration of prisms and slabs that fits the stony campus while making a contemporary statement.

Its centrepiece is a 566-seat concert hall in classic shoebox configuration. It was shaped, by the architects and the prominent engineering firm Arup, to meet acoustic goals first. “You want the Goldilocks effect – not too live and not too dry – and they got it just right,” says Tricia Baldwin, the director of the Bader Centre. “I feel like our architects have given our musicians a Strad.”

Yet the hall looks great, too: tightly detailed but unfussy. The audience seats are a carpet of mossy green, and if you look carefully you see they are four different shades – a move to make the house feel lively even when it isn’t full. The walls are covered in lines of panelling in walnut, cherry, pear, beech and anigre woods: There are varied shades but a consistent rhythm, which Dykers compares to the sedimentary limestone in the ground around Kingston. “It’s sort of cavernous,” he adds, “which takes you back in time to the primitive roots of human civilization and making sound in a cave.”

The same pattern repeats in the stainless-steel shingles that wrap the exterior of the building. Yet they are a lower-grade steel that refracts light, a quality known as “oil panning.” This irregular quality was what the architects wanted. “When the sun is out and it hits the lake, the quality of the light is never uniform,” Dykers says. On a grey day in late spring, I saw one steely arm of the building reach out to the lake. Its skin picked up the light from Lake Ontario and shimmered in sympathy. From the right angle, the building looks like an icon; it takes its context and, literally, reflects it back.

Rendering of Calgary Public LIbrary. (MIR & Snohetta)

Building a narrative

In 2004, Snohetta’s diplomatic manner helped win a commission in the most sensitive site in the world: New York’s World Trade Center. It was for a gallery and museum building to sit on Ground Zero; a performing arts centre next door was to be designed by Gehry. The churn of politics and money around the site killed Gehry’s project, and Snohetta’s evolved into a pavilion for the underground National September 11 Memorial and Museum. It is a modest building on the surface, containing a grand auditorium and other functions underground – an architectural iceberg.

The building is a Pyrrhic victory, but it gave Snohetta, then unknown in North America, a reason to set up shop in New York and push toward global prominence. In April, they were moving into new, larger offices a few blocks from Ground Zero, and Dykers invited me to their temporary space to discuss their recent work. The models and drawings suggested their reach across North America: drawings for a library in North Carolina, a small addition for the legendary restaurant the French Laundry in California, and a secret (for now) commercial project they’re working on with a big-name firm.

Most architects would have kept the conversation focused on the work. But Dykers also spent half an hour touring me through the office – still filled with the previous tenants’ detritus. In the front lobby, Snohetta had built an art installation out of used moving boxes. Each held a series of letterpress cards with creative prompts: “Did you ever consider adding a narrative?”

In architecture, a “narrative” often means an intellectual alibi, a rationale for why a project takes a particular form and configuration. The academic world favours such artful talk. But when Dykers talks about narrative, it’s not a crutch; it is an added layer, such as the natural metaphors in Toronto or the reference to limestone in Kingston, that deepens the experience of a space. “Every time you meet somebody, you don’t tell them your life story,” Dykers says. “You just happen to have a way of being – and your way of being is the sum total of everything your life has built in the time you’ve been on Earth. And it’s the same for buildings.”

Calgary’s New Central Library, which is still under construction, is one of Snohetta’s current projects; the designers drew on Chinook Arch cloud formations for inspiration. (MIR & Snohetta)

Developing a new building in a new place means searching for new sources of narratives. For Calgary’s New Central Library, which Snohetta is designing with the Calgary office of Dialog, the architects drew on the Chinook Arch – those powerful, unusual cloud formations that appear so vividly in the area.

For the library, now under construction, Snohetta’s team drew a broad, gentle arch. But to stop there would make it feel “like a cartoon of an idea,” Dykers says. “There’s a difference between a cartoon and a great novel. … A building has to function. It has to provide ways for people to use it.”

Instead, the library looks more like a giant, elegant jellybean, with a skin of glass and zinc in a motif of triangles and diamonds. Within are a large atrium and an interior that unfolds, hospitably, as a series of terraces. This will be easy for new visitors to read; “You can build a mental map of where you are right away,” as Dykers puts it.

Outside, the terraces continue as outdoor public plazas – ready to lure people on foot into and right through the building, on a path between the redeveloping East Village and downtown Calgary. The design elegantly solves the many problems of the site, which is sloped, has an awkward geometry and is sliced in two by the LRT. The library could have been a slab and an obstacle. Instead it’s something more supple and complex: architecture and landscape together, shaped to make the city better.

Will it succeed it bringing people together? A week after the Ryerson building in Toronto opens, I return to see how it’s working. Upstairs, the beach has come to life: Hundreds of students sprawl on colourful cushions and chaises, reading textbooks or watching videos. And four young women are studying together in the room’s quietest corner. It’s as if the place were made for them.

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