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Monday, July 26, 2010

Snøhetta - Interview with Craig Dykers

Map in the Snøhetta offices.

A few weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to sit down with Craig Dykers of Snøhetta. We talked a bit about what they are doing at their NYC office and where they hope to take architecture through their practice. Enjoy!

The Snøhetta offices.

What are some of the current conceptual schemes and ideas that your office is exploring?

I would say that one of the interesting qualities about our office is that if you asked different people what threads they’re following you may very likely get different answers, so in one sense there is no single thread that dominates every discussion. On the other hand, me personally, I’ve been very interested in the notion that understanding human beings from a perspective of anthropological and psychological understanding seems to interest me in that architecture could respond to those ideas in a way that I haven’t seen architecture responding, to in recent history, anyway.

So talking about human beings as fleshy creatures that are fallible and intriguing, complex, right, wrong, good, bad, all of those things, intuitive and predictable, seems to be something that dominates how I look at buildings, so I spend a lot just thinking and looking at people in different environments, almost like a voyeur.

Is there a specific architectural program that you can expand on?

Well, I think that nearly everything that we do is first and foremost framed by why we as creators, as architects and designers want to participate in that process. So, before one can even discuss design, you have to ask WHY you want to design. Once you answer that question, then you have to say, why are we going to solve it in this particular way, what’s motivating us? Then you get to the program and you have to ask why does this program even exist? Why are there things like museums, for example? What is a museum? Why do we think we need to have them? Beyond that, the program starts to open itself up. I like to suggest that program can be defined in several layers. There is a functional program that is by far the most rational understanding of program, but aesthetics and ornament and all of the “useless” stuff is programmatic also. It drives us, it frames our view of the world, even if they don’t have any pure function (ornament or such things as aesthetic qualities), so in that sense, the program is much more open.

Barcode B10.1 commercial building, Oslo, Norway.

You touched a little bit on how Snøhetta doesn’t have a singular design focus, in the way that they approach projects, or in the way that the formal and material moves are made. What do you think of starchitects who have a marketable, branded style? Do you think that’s necessary at that level? Or do you think that investigation of all these things you were talking about earlier is Snøhetta’s signature?

First of all, just to say that while we may have a signature style – it may be there – it’s not something we’re conscious of, so that’s why I’m saying we don’t feel like we have one. I’m sure that some very good critic could come in and dig out some kind of stylistic thread that ties everything together, but it’s not something we’re really conscious of or maintaining, that’s what I mean by that, not that it doesn’t exist. The second thing is, that we are modern architects, there’s no doubt about it – we’re contemporary, and we’re often trying to fit our work into a contemporary setting that transforms the past and looks towards the future. It’s not stylizing the past or fixing the past, nor is it attempting to create the future. It’s more simply transforming time into different modes, so if we are modern architects, then I would say the world of architecture is divided into two large tributaries of theorists. One is the old world modernists, one is the new world modernists. Old world modernists are producing modern architecture, things that we can aesthetically and programmatically refer to as modern architecture, but they’re creating it in the style of the old world masters. They have a fairly hierarchical structure, they dictate the directions and continuum of the design trajectory of an office, and they are more or less functioning like a master with apprentices.

There are new world modernists, which I believe we are a part of, which although obviously have structures and hierarchies, they are more flat and rounded. It allows for groups of people to interact in the design process. The result is as society changes and becomes more complex, and becomes more rooted in the interactions of large groups of people, large social structures, complex cultural interactions. Architects need to acquire that value in their offices, otherwise they can’t respond directly to culture at large; they’re only making beautiful objects that may be inspiring.

Does it make better architecture to be an old world or new world modernist? No, I think you can make good architecture in both, that’s not the point, the point is that how we do things is more valuable that the result at this change in societies life.

Darat King Abdullah II performing arts/cultural center in Amman, Jordan.

Is there a lot of collaboration between the two offices on specific projects? Or do you handle certain projects here and they handle certain projects in Norway?

In the beginning we had a lot of collaborative development. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten more and more work, and actually, many of the fees don’t cover that kind of collaboration, but we do whatever we can, and the spirit is there and the goal is there, and I often think that is as important as anything else. Things go up and down, sometimes you’re able to collaborate more and sometimes you’re not, it’s what motivates you that is of value, and we are motivated to be functioning as a group.

What is the role of education within the office? Between the offices, cross-pollination between different fields?

We call ourselves trans-disciplinary, which is a slight twist on inter- or multi -disciplinary. Trans-disciplinary I say is a bit like trans-gender where you don’t know what is male or female. In our office you don’t know what is landscape, what’s architecture, what’s interior, there’s literally no division. A landscape architect can draw a building, and in fact many of our best building ideas come from landscape architects and vice-versa. There’s a kind of intriguing method of educating each other, simply by the fact that we have different educational backgrounds in the office. A lot of architects think they know landscape architecture, and vice versa, and while they are related, they’re more like cousins than brothers and sisters. So, you can’t really just make that knowledge base appear, you have to have the people there. So that’s one level in which we educate ourselves.

The other thing is we have what we call “Thirsty Thursdays”. We bring people in from the outside, and we try to fairly often. Last week we had the Brooklyn company called Situ – they do interesting work with 3-D modeling. They gave a presentation, we have beers – we have a beer tap there, I don’t know if you saw it. We have our kitchen in the space – that promotes a dialogue that you don’t get in ordinary offices.

Between the offices, people come over from time to time, that’s always a big thrill for everybody. When somebody comes over, because it doesn’t happen very often, it’s a big thing – you’re throwing lots of at them, lots of feedback.

Serpentine Pavilion, London.

What part of the design process is most informative to your final design? Sketch, research, models, material experiments, construction?

I often say, and this is somewhat true if you look at it from a very practical perspective – if you take just the cost of a building as an indicator of what a design is, about 60-65% of the cost of a building is fixed in the first 5% of the planning process. That means if you took the whole spectrum of planning and you were able to look at the first 5%, that little tiny step at the beginning, you’ve already made most of the decisions that are going to affect the outcome of the building. That includes programming, which is an indicator of about 85% of the cost of the building – how big and how much, what quality you want. The architecture is about 15% of the cost of the building, so all of the frou frou bits that you do, the fancy little moves that people often see as architecture are really only controlling about 15% of the cost. So in that sense, that tells you that the first few steps have the biggest impact.

That’s true conceptually, also. I like to say that concepts are an enormously important part of how you understand design, but ultimately the concept should not be a part of the final product. It’s like saying the concept of a human being is to have an internal skeletal structure with organs that beat and allow them to walk on two legs and have a brain that allows them to accommodate different levels of thinking. If that is all we were, we wouldn’t be much. So the concept is inherent and intrinsic in the outcome, but it’s not what the outcome promises to be, in fact, that’s something else that is deeper and broader that the concept. But nevertheless you have to have that or nothing works. The conceptual stage is the biggest stage for us, in which we get the most frantic and have the most discussions.

Process models at the Snøhetta offices.

The construction stage is very important, too, but it’s a different level of discussions. If you look at it one way you can say that in the beginning you only have a couple of ideas – if you’re lucky maybe 4-5 ideas, but they’re gigantic. By the end you have 10,000 ideas and they’re all super small.

You mentioned big conceptual moves – if you can talk about this, was there something where the office was really behind X-concept and in dealing with the client, what is something you had to give up or fought really hard to keep?

It’s very unusual that it happens but it does – it happened recently with us. We always say that when you’re working with something as complex as architectural design in the public sphere – to a certain extent in the private sphere, but more so in the public sphere – as things grow more complicated, everyone involved in the process who is a stakeholder in the design really needs to be involved from the very early stages, otherwise they get lost and confused. It’s hard enough for architects, let alone people not trained in the profession. If you’re doing architecture in the realm that we are, which is trying to create new ways of seeing things, broadening people’s perspectives, introduce new norms for social interactions, things like that, then you really need to get people involved early. There have been times where we’ve asked, let’s get the important people to the table, and everyone says, yeah, they’re all here, and then halfway through you realize that there’s actually these 3 or 4 people that we have to present to and they haven’t been there at all from the very beginning, so you show your work to them and they are totally against it because it’s like a pie in the face to their understanding of the world. And really what we’re often trying to do is respect other people’s understanding, but in that kind of scenario you aren’t able to build a bridge so no body crosses the river.

The other thing is how we maintain a concept internally. Sometimes the size of the group makes a difference – if it’s too big of a group, you can’t hold on. Nothing negative, because everyone has the best intentions at heart, there’s just not enough space for these intentions to grow organically, so finding the right size of the group is very important. Trying to define who the group is, is very important. We don’t look at things in terms of “Ooh, that person’s a good designer and that person’s not”, it’s not like that, but we do try to balance between male and female, and also balance between disciplines – architecture and landscape, interiors if we can, and balance between levels of understanding – young and old. Getting that mix in the group makes a big difference.

New Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, Oslo.

Any other thoughts that you would like to share with us?

I teach occasionally, not very often, but I sense differences in younger people’s approach to architecture. Sometimes it makes me a little nervous; I think part of it is because of teaching methods that I believe are somewhat problematic in the world of architecture. The other is people’s desires are changing, especially when the economies of the world have shifted radically. I believe somehow a lot of people are in it just to find a job – the job is important but it’s not why you make architecture. You definitely make it so that you are earning a living – you’re not stupid about your money – you always should have enough to move forward. But a lot of students that I talk to about why they’re doing it, their answers are puzzling to me – “I want to work on this, or I’m going to do that”, but they don’t say things like “there are these aspects of the world that interest me and I want to fit into this part of it”, and in fact getting a job may be exactly the wrong thing to do because the method of training in architecture is so limited, it’s almost worthwhile once you get out of school to think of something else that you want to do that fits you before you move into taking a job, or you run things in parallel. That is something that is intriguing to me. It’s valuable to try and reevaluate why you want to do things. Architecture in the professional world is already at a very unusual point – it’s disappearing as a profession. It’s hard to say how much longer architecture will exist in the traditional way that we understand it – costs of building are increasing to the point that design as we ordinarily understood it has changed, or it’s reached a point now where fees are often lower and salaries are higher and those two things hit each other, making it such that you can’t have big teams anymore. When I was younger, you’d have 15 people on a job, and you’d get to learn from those people. Now you have 3 or 4 and they’re all working on 5-6 jobs, and that’s also related to the notion of focus with technologies and so forth.

One last thing that I wanted to mention – it’s important for us to use our fingers and bodies while we design. I often say that your mind is not the only thing that thinks; your whole body thinks, and you need to use your whole body to think. If you limit your physical movements to interacting with a computer, you’re not thinking as much. That doesn’t mean you that don’t do an incredible amount of thinking at a computer, and invaluable thinking at a computer, but you need to move back and forth between these worlds, and I sense sometimes that younger people are losing that, sketching is no longer a part of the process anymore. I’m not saying, let’s go back to the old times when I walked a mile to school – I’m saying, let’s keep expanding the technologies, but we need to expand them in the context of what the human body is all about. That goes back to what I said earlier, the same way we see architecture, you have to think of the human body as a fleshy thing, not as an abstract quotient.

If you could change one thing about architectural education, what would it be?

I always felt this when I was in school, and I think other people feel it, too – that while it was exciting to work on theoretical approaches to architecture, I never felt I had enough use of building and making in a real way. It was all about representation, it wasn’t about actual things. You know, why can’t we just make it, or at least make a part of it? I think that would be a wonderful thing in schools to really get the blood flowing, and allow you to be more excited to go back to your desk and think in worlds outside of the every day. The other thing I would change is literally to allow students to interact with real people in a way that’s not written – talking to people in the streets, going out into cities and really interacting with people – that’s a big thing to ask, because people’s sensibilities are often defined by boundaries – it’s hard to go up to people on the street and talk to them. Essentially architects are like animal behaviorists, but we don’t deal with monkeys and gazelles – we deal with human beings. I read a lot of Temple Grandin’s books – she was very transformational for me. I would recommend reading some of her books about how she perceives animals – we’re an animal, so it definitely gives you a different insight in what it means to make things for people. It’s about who they are as creatures, psychologically, not some sort of set of definitions.

Thanks to Craig Dykers for meeting with us, and to Kira Kupfersberger and Leah Shearer for setting up the interview.

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