What architects don’t always admit, especially to others, is that they don’t approach each project as if it were a blank slate. The truth is that most architects have a distinct formal vocabulary– a language of shapes, material, color, and an approach to space– that runs like a theme through their work. Sometimes this formal vocabulary is an expression of something personal and idiosyncratic, such as Frank Ghery’s obsession with fish, or Eisenman’s infamous grids. For Norwegian firm, Snøhetta, their formal obsessions have their roots in the Nordic landscape and it’s cultural sea-faring heritidge.
The towering mountains and deep fjords of the Norway informs the shapes of many of Snøhetta’s buildings which often present a monolithic and sublime mass from a distance, yet reveal intricate and technologically sophisticated detailing at a closer scale.
Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House, winner of the best cultural building of 2008 at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, is a giant tilted slab punctured by glass boxes. The Opera House emerges out of the sea as if it were a geological formation, rather than a building. The enormous roofscape, which Snøhetta calls the ‘carpet’, acts as a tilted urban plaza. It is a public terrace by the sea that teems with activity. As one approaches the building it’s mass is broken down by intricately textured and patterned surfaces, such as the marble of the roofscape and the aluminum panels that clad many of the vertical surfaces. These elements, as Snøhetta’s Tom Holtmann describes, were designed together with Nordic artists, who were invited to be collaborators, rather than merely decorators.
For the aluminum cladding panels, textile artists Astrid Løvaas and Kirsten Wagle, used a pattern based on old weaving techniques, to create a complex surface of convex and concave shapes. The three dimensional pattern activates the monolithic shape of the facade with a subtle shifts in shadow and reflection as the sun moves across the sky.
Like the Oslo Opera House, the New National Library of Egypt consists of a large simple tilted form, in this case a stone clad cylinder, that seems to rise out of the water. In this case, the body of water is a man-made reflecting pool that evokes the nearby Mediterranean. The building’s simplicity and monumentality has indigenous roots–after all the Egyptian pyramids, are nothing if not sublime in scale while being in minimal in form. Yet, there is no denying that the Library evokes the Oslo Opera House. The two buildings are similar, yet at the same time unique. Snøhetta’s formal concerns are not forced onto their projects, but instead are adapted to the particularities of the context.
Snøhetta’s unique architectural language appears again in thier design for The Fishing Museum on Karmoy Norway. Like many of their other buildings the Fishing Museum seems to be an extension of the craggy landscape itself, launching out of it like a geological formation. The nautical theme of the museum plays out in the precise wooden detailing of the interior.
Snøhetta’s design for the Tromsø Hotel is the most literally ship-like of all their buildings. The curved belly of the building emerges out of the ground as if it were a ship surging out of a rough sea.
All languages have a limited number of words and an unlimited number of expressive possibilities. Snøhetta uses it’s particular vocabulary of architectural forms- the angled plinth, the monumental curve, the crafted wood joint, the juxtaposition of monolith and intimate detailing– in ways that always seems fresh, yet consistent with their vision.