With built and ongoing projects from California to Canada to Norway, architect Craig Dykers, co-founder of Snøhetta, has had a packed year. In San Francisco, where Snøhetta has opened a new office, the firm has been working on a new wing for SFMOMA, a new arena for the Golden State Warriors, and a shortlisted design for the New Presidio Parklands. Dykers sat down with AN contributor Ariel Rosenstock to discuss his firm’s Bay Area projects, its approach to the region, the power of our subconscious, and how design is becoming more interactive.
Ariel Rosenstock: You’re working on a lot of projects in San Francisco. What are you learning about the city?
Craig Dykers: Well, it’s a very richly layered community, not only in terms of its geography and its climate, but also in terms of its culture. It’s a many-faceted city, and we are always learning something new from each city.
How have you become so enmeshed in San Francisco?
I wouldn’t feel that we are enmeshed. I would say that we have had a long-standing interest in the city. Many of us were here the other day [for the New Presidio Parklands presentation] and those in our [San Francisco] office are from San Francisco, and went to school in San Francisco. And even many in our New York office.
So there’s been a long-standing interest. And then, when we won the commission for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we began to connect to many different groups, and found the city to our way of thinking in the region here.
So would you say there are any commonalities between the projects in San Francisco?
For the most part, each of the projects has a very strong commitment to the public realm, to the urban condition, or the areas in or around the sites. We are creating an emphasis on landscape. San Francisco can be fundamentally defined by its landscape, and even the city grid interacts with the landscape in unique ways. I would say these are some of the shared interests: there is more understanding of landscape in San Francisco than in some cities. And likewise, the maritime climate is very unique. Changes in temperature and changes in light conditions create a different niche for facades and glazing systems, windows, and doors.
The concept of “Arcs and Strands” is a major force in the development of your proposal for the New Presidio Parklands. Could you tell us more about it? Who came up with the idea?
We worked as a large design team, and there are many other design team members on the project, so it wasn’t sourced individually. We met not only with our own designers, but with community groups organized by the Presidio stakeholders.
The term “Arcs and Strands” refers to two features that we found are fundamental to the site. The strands relate to the grid and the character of the historical landscape at the Presidio—the forts which are built on a fairly clearly defined street system. And at the edges of those streets and parade grounds and rectilinear street layouts, the edges often filter away and kind of end randomly. And the arcs take on a different component of the site, which is the natural condition of the site, where the San Francisco Bay interacts with the shoreline and with more organic and more fluid conditions.
What would you say are the most important features of the plan and what do you see are the greatest strengths of the site?
In our case we chose to evaluate the somewhat minimal approach to the new design at the Presidio. We wanted the power we found in the experiences that people would have there rather than the image or the kind of iconography of the design. Our approach is perhaps somewhat softer than others might have taken. I think that is an important feature. We don’t think that means it has only soft moments. There are some very strong moments and they are couched in a kind of minimal expression—the background feel rather than the foreground feel on the site.
We also made a number of studies on sustainable design in ensuring water flow would be natural here and would work more carefully with the marshlands. There’s a marsh near Crissy Field. The design has been changed and altered over the decades after World War II, so that now it doesn’t flow naturally in and out of the bay. We looked at entryways into the marsh to make a more sustainable marshland there and an education landscape. And finally, we wanted to make sure there would be parts of the program area that could be used for more significant events from time to time––such as the Makers Market, markets related to community activity––protected from the wind and comfortable for users.
How has building in San Francisco changed your approach?
Perhaps we are more attuned to cultural communities. San Francisco is quite diverse in its demographics, so being aware of those demographics is something that you might not find everywhere you build in the world.
What is happening with the Golden State Warriors arena project?
Our office is designated a senior design advisor, so we are not directly contracted as the design team. At this time we just presented at the Community Advisory Committee––we just had our second presentation. At the first one we revealed some of our design approaches. And that went very well. The project is moving forward in a very dynamic way. We’re creating a new urban condition there because the new site for the Golden State Warriors (the former salesforce.com site) ties together four separate sites into one. We are able to be more dynamic with the urban plan there than we might be if we were on a single block or a single footprint commercial building. Soon we’re going to be showing some renderings or designs.
Do you have any more projects planned for the west coast?
We are working in a role together with Thomas Keller for the French Laundry up in Yountville, near Napa, helping pull together some thoughts for an update of his kitchen and garden. We’re also talking to a few other people here for some potential commercial and public realm projects. I think we are doing a contemporary installation on Market Street, something called Urban Prototype, where we will set up a contemporary occupiable sculpture near Van Ness and Market. But I think that’s a year away.
What would you say is the next big thing in design?
I think people are recognizing now the nature of human nature, or rather how people interact in space and in design. We used to see design as a standalone thing that either assisted us in a particular function or was something beautiful or interesting that we looked at. Now I think we are seeing that design is completely interactive in terms of the human condition. I think issues of public health will be scrutinized more carefully and how architecture interacts with it, and also how architecture interacts with civil conditions and society.
Are your designs ever inspired by your dreams?
I think all of us live in two worlds, we live in the conscious world and the subconscious world, and our subconscious actually has a greater role in our lives than we often credit it for. When you say dreams, you are implying that you are asleep at night, but the fact is that you’re up and you’re daydreaming during the day. And a lot of our life is lived in a kind of daydream state where our bodies are making decisions for us while we take on other activities while several other subconscious activities are going on at the same time. And in that way, yes, I think we are inspired by our subconscious, maybe not so much by a dream in a direct way.
How has your background in medicine (Dykers initially studied medicine at the University of Texas) informed how you approach design?
Personally I’ve always been interested in the human body. I think there is a direct relationship between who we are and how we operate and what our body needs and the kind of building, architecture, and places we create that contain us in cities. So I think there are a wide range of issues here that are necessary to explore. In the past it’s only been what’s called anthropometrics, which is the nature of physical forms and how it relates to architecture. I think it runs deeper than that.
Do you have anything else you would like to share with the readers of AN?
We are an interesting firm in that we are multicultural and multidisciplinary so we often use the term transdisciplinary or transcultural to define who we are. We don’t necessarily see things as segregated, we see each of us as being able to step in each other’s shoes very easily. We’re about 30 percent landscape architects in the company, as well as architects. We also have interior architects and branding and graphic design groups and we all work together—each of us tries to assume the role of the other. We all try to understand the different needs as we work together. That’s also true culturally. We are a number of different cultures in the office. We now have 16 or so different nationalities. So we are trying to drop the idea of cultural baggage from the discussion, so we can create commonality rather than segregation.