Snøhetta: Architecture, Landscape, Interior
58 Park Avenue, New York
Through April 3
Sometimes all you need is one good idea. In the case of Snøhetta, the Norwegian-American design partnership now getting the mid-career monograph-and-exhibition treatment at Scandinavia House: The Nordic Center in America on Park Avenue, the idea is that a building doesn’t rest on the ground, but is something that weightily descends or weightlessly ascends through it.
This had its earliest and most legible expression when the only two-year-old firm won the 1989 design competition for the very big new library at Alexandria, Egypt. That building (which opened in 2001, notionally replacing the legendary 4th-century BCE original, plus new planetarium), was a vast tilted disk, like a coin pressed into sand. The granite rim of the raised southern edge was inscribed with an intricate palimpsest of glyphs, letters, and runes, while the northern rim descended into a papyrus-reed pond that evoked, but alas was not actually, the nearby Mediterranean.
That same combination of elements reached a more direct articulation in the firm’s other major competition-winning project, the 2008 Opera House on the shore of the Oslo Fjord: almost four acres of tilting, folding, snow-white Carrara marble angling down into the waters of the fjord, serving as a roof for the glassy lobby and theaters below, and as a public promenade for strolling crowds above. “Not a sculptural monument,” as its creators put it, “a social monument.” The whole thing is thrillingly glacier-like, although a fastidious observer could ask for considerably greater formal and topological continuities between the external and internal circulation surfaces.
Other works range from smaller-scaled Norwegian projects (an alluringly Aaltoesque museum in Lillehamer; a severely Fehnian art center in Karmoy) to huge on-the-boards schemes for hotels and cultural centers on the Arabian Peninsula—the conventionally curvilinear convexity of which suggest that the firm has decided to develop a diversity of formal vocabularies in different contexts, or to more directly express the possibly distinct visions of current principals Kjetil Thorsen and Craig Dykers. Or that they’ve been looking at a lot of shiny metal balloon sculptures by Jeff Koons.
Snøhetta glided into American architectural consciousness with another competition-winning scheme, this one for what is now called the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in downtown Manhattan. The attenuation of that name speaks to the tragicomic decline of civic and architectural ambition for the former site of the World Trade Center: What was to have been a 325,000-square-foot home for several cultural institutions was reduced to a 60,000-square-foot escalator pavilion for a subterranean museum and the display of fragments of the signature Yamasaki facade. Too bad. The original scheme was uplifting: sculpturally appearing to rise through and above the ground, translucently illuminating an iridescent atrium. In current reduced form, it’s still the very best building to date in the downtown reconstruction. Deft tilts along the building’s north facade and roof develop a torqued and tensioned volume that calmly consolidates the spatial and psychological stresses at that point in the streetscape. The result is a landmark that directs but doesn’t distract from the adjacent tower-footprint memorial complex.
This exemplifies what the current exhibition demonstrates about Snøhetta’s work: that something as simple as sustained attention to the ground plane has allowed their projects to transcend vicissitudes of tastes and clients. At Ground Zero, Snøhetta’s work is a crisp tonic to the bathetic flim-flam that accompanied the initial masterplanning of the area, and the developer-driven mediocrities that followed. It supports the notion that more of the egalitarian and global architectural competitions that have driven much of Snøhetta’s success could allow architecture to transcend the provincial narcissisms and internecine deadlocks that so often undermine its potential to uplift cities—even and especially in New York. Now that would be a good idea.