Interview: Craig Dykers/Snøhetta (Fall 2006)

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COMPETITIONS: When did you decide you wanted to become an architect?

 Craig Dykers: I started off wanting to work with fashion—women’s fashion and clothing seemed very interesting to me. I quickly learned that the world of fashion wasn’t what I had anticipated. It came to feel very superficial and calculating. I left that and was somehow accepted into medical school, perhaps because of an interest I had in the human body. My grades were not very high; but my notebooks were apparently impressive. In medical school your notebooks are reviewed as well as taking tests My ability to draw anatomical forms was very good and one of the professors recommended that instead of studying medicine I should enroll in the art school and become an anatomical illustrator.

 

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Alexandria Library, Alexandria, Egypt (Competition 1989, completion 2001)
 
Surprisingly I was accepted into the art department and I soon found myself feeling very comfortable. I began to fall in love with everything; I was beginning to get commissions, drawing cartoons for a local paper, and doing editorial illustrations. I called up my father one day—with whom I had had a very good relationship, and told him I wanted to become an artist. This was met with silence. I didn’t understand that, because he had always taken me to museums, and he was very much a lover of art. He simply said, ‘Well son, you’re not going to get any help from me.’ A couple of weeks later I asked him why he had been so negative. He replied, ‘If you need to call up your father to get his approval for being an artist, then you will never be a good artist. You should have done it and not called me. Then I would have given you all the help you wanted.’

 

I was confused with what to do with this conundrum. He advised me further, ‘You like science and art; architecture seems like a good thing.’  I admitted that I had no idea what that was all about. He said something like, “Architects make churches and things like that. I felt I could work with this, making places for people. The architecture school accepted me and I rolled right into it, staying up many nights to work on my studio assignments. The end result of that long story is that there is an interest in the human form and the notion of the human body as it relates to the things we create. I think that is still with me.

 

 COMPETITIONS: Was Charles Moore already in Austin when you were a student there?

 

 CD: He arrived as I was leaving and there was only one semester overlap. I remember asking him why the nice parts of cities often appear to be on the west or north sides. Not entirely true, but it’s pretty frequent.

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Alexandria Library, Alexandria, Egypt (Competition 1989, completion 2001)

 

 

COMPETITIONS: Snøhetta’s origin began with the Alexandria competition. How did that come about?

 

 

CD: It’s a complex story. There was a group in Norway who already had a small practice called Snøhetta. It was a loosely knit group of young people sharing a space. There was myself and some colleagues in Los Angeles. We had some independent activity, also working with other people, but we were also branching off on our own. Both of us were linked by common friends. There was a notion of understanding as to who your colleagues were out in the world.

 

When we decided to do the Alexandria Library, it seemed appropriate that we come together. They had already registered in Norway when we were getting ready to register. They suggested that we do it together, and we agreed. Some of the Norwegians came over to Los Angeles, where we rented a space with very little money. We were all 30 or under, and we couldn’t afford furniture—some of the furniture we had was rented from a Hollywood prop shop. We rented space for a couple of months in a Jewish retirement home—we imagined that the vacated space may have been the result of a death. We sent our entry off from LA when we finished and when we won, we all met again in Egypt, since we all had gone off on our separate ways. In fact, I had taken a job in Japan to do some work there. When we did meet, we decided to remake the company as a corporation with shareholders. Since that time, many have left and established their own practices, some in America. Now there are two partners in the company, Kjetil Thorsen and myself.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: Were the partners who left mainly the American ones?

 

 

CD: In fact, the one who left the company and went to California was an Austrian, Christoph Kapeller. I have been the only American founder of the company.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: I was wondering about the choice of materials for the Alexandria library. Had you already figured out what kind of stone to use, etc., based on research when submitting the competition entry? Or did that come with design development?

 

 

CD: Those kinds of issues may pop up in conversation, but are not necessarily the focus, especially when you are aware of the fact that over a thousand people in that case had registered for the competition. You probably recognize that a detail or a way of working with a kind of detail isn’t going to make the competition successful. In fact, there were other projects that were far more detail-oriented than ours. The second prize winner actually had a full set of construction documents delivered with the competition entry.

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Oslo Opera House (Competition winner 2000; completion 2007) Courtesy: Snønetta

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Photo: ©Bjørvika
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Photos: ©Engels

 

COMPETITIONS: Charles Moore, who had served on many juries, when questioned as to what might draw his attention to a particular design, said it might be a “big ink blot” on the board. So I wondered what strategy you pursued to get your design noticed?

 

 CD: One of the things I’ve often thought about when working on competition boards for large competitions—this was the case for both the Alexandria Library and the Opera—were national flags. There are some flags that stick in your mind, like the Japanese flag, which was the model for the competition board for Alexandria. That idea came after the design was finished, and when we finally achieved this circular form, I thought it would be a fantastic idea to put that one circle on a blank page. That was a powerful suggestion of what the project was about.

That came to be very useful, for when I went back to look at all the other competition entries, they were filled with material—everyone used every square inch. You couldn’t really see the project. By creating this kind of Japanese flag, it stopped you in your tracks.

The (Oslo) opera competition was the same—we used the Czech flag. We you see the board, it doesn’t register immediately; but it looks like a banner—very simple, very direct. Something like that certainly helps in a large competition.

 

COMPETITIONS: Your connection with 9/11 began long before Snøhetta’s more recent participation on the design of a building at Ground Zero. You were on a flight which was diverted on that very day to Newfoundland. How did this add to your understanding of that event?

 

CD: I do remember very clearly some of the feelings I had as our plane landed in Canada. We were approaching JFK at nine in the morning, approaching New York as the two towers collapsed. When we arrived in Gander (Newfoundland) and left the plane, everyone was so friendly and warm; the entire town opened up their arms to us. There are 10,000 people living in Gander,  and 8,000 passengers arrived during one day—at an airport that seldom receives international traffic. They turned off their telephones to allow more switches to remain open so that passengers could call home. They gave us food and toothpaste and places to sleep. I recognized that human nature has a polar identity. We felt the best and worst of human nature in one day.

The other thing I noticed, which has affected my thinking on this project [the 9/11 Visitors Center at Ground Zero] is that upon landing in Gander, everyone found themselves in close quarters with a large number of people from different countries. Everyone managed to get along well. I recognized that the diversity of our existence is something we have to work directly with. The project here at Ground Zero is attempting to do that architecturally. The site where we were asked to build is the only place where several architectural teams have to actually overlap. So we are sitting on top of the Memorial Plaza, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker; we are also sitting over the Calatrava train mezzanine and the Memorial Museum, being designed by Davis Brody Bond. It is also across the street from the proposed Frank Gehry performing arts center. So rather than segregate, we are trying to pull these various identities together.

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Sheik Zayed Knowledge Centre, Abu Dhabi (unbuilt)

 

 

COMPETITIONS: Like many firms doing work internationally, Snøhetta is, to a certain extent, a multi-cultural organization, at least in its personnel makeup. Just how Scandinavian is the firm in its inner workings and approach to potential commissions?

 

 

CD: It’s a common question. Identity is always a complex matter. Even the word identity is unusual. It sounds like it should relate to what it means to be an individual. But, in fact, it refers to larger groups of people or collective aspects of character. We are, of course, a Norwegian company, because our home office is there and we have established ourselves for many years in Oslo. As a result, we adopted characteristics which are very familiar in northern Europe: notions of consensus-building, of fair social justice and equality, neutrality in positions to the point that we are trying to create success rather than conflict. So I think you’ll find—separate from the objects that we create—a clear Norwegian character: everyone gets paid well; they have solid holidays and benefits. We don’t ask people to work for free, in closets and with poor equipment. We approach all of our designs as a team, so that there is no single ownership. Even our name isn’t the name of a person, but the name of a place—a mountain.

The other thing one can discuss as Norwegian is the relationship to landscape. Although many places have distinct landscapes, Norway is known for its natural beauty—even though it is often overlooked, even in the architecture you find there. It is still a pretty strong component of how we relate to architecture. Those are the ways that we are Norwegian. As Norwegian as we seem to be at times, like a scientist, you don’t tie yourself to political boundaries. Scientists work with science, and architects work with architecture not with national boundaries. Snøhetta is often trying to free itself from the capacity of society to contain it. Of course architecture is a reflection of society, and therefore our work in Norway will have a different reflection and character than in other places.

Also, Norway is a maritime nation, a nation that always traveled abroad. The Vikings were a nation of economy and trade—as were the Dutch. I think that is one reason you find so many Dutch architects out and about.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: The Alexandria Library competition certainly ranks up there with the Kansai-Kan and Paris National Library competitions in importance. Similar to Dominique Perrault, Snøhetta suddenly found itself on the front page of architectural publications. Some firms win competitions, then sink into obscurity. This didn’t happen with Snøhetta. What was the strategy after Alexandria?

 

 CD: The media picks up on you when you are in the right place, then suddenly it dies out. That happened with us, too. We’ve managed to crest and break several times during our careers. At the end of the Alexandria Library construction process, when the building was finally meant to open on October 11, 2001, the building’s representation to the public was thwarted. A building that was intended to be a centerpiece of cooperation between the Arab world and the west didn’t open because of the tragedies of September 11th. So a kind of depression sunk in for some of us. Also the fact that the Alexandria Library was such a vast, powerful project, was a little like going to the moon. After you return, what else is there to do? There was a period where it seemed like we might drown in our sorrow. But we picked ourselves back up and found other competitions. There was one competition in our back yard—The National Opera of Norway. After working for 12 years on something that was so far away from your home, it seemed interesting to do something right next door.

Not all of us were in favor of entering. I was somewhat reluctant to pursue that competition because of the composition of the jury.

When I look at a competition, I look at the jury first. Although there were one or two good people on the jury, I wasn’t that convinced by the totality of the jury. I felt it was too closely connected to the State Building Authority and its bureaucracy. In the end we agreed to do it—starting only five weeks before the delivery date. By winning that, it was a powerful boost to us, because we recognized that we could do it more than once. If you don’t set a goal to try and outdo yourself, then you will wallow in the past success and not move forward.
West Campus North Carolina State University Library (Photos: ©Stanley Collyer)

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North Carolina State University West Campus Library (Photos: ©Stanley Collyer)
 
We did a lot of competitions in the interim, with varying degrees of success. There was one period of two years where we won nearly every competition we entered. Then there is a gap of three years with nothing.

 

COMPETITIONS: You came very close in the Kansai-Kan Library competition.

 

 

CD: We were the only non-Japanese firm to win an award in the competition. We did that in collaboration with Thomas McQuillan.

 

 

COMPETITIONS: Similar to the Tokyo Forum (another competition run by the U.I.A.), Snøhetta also designed the furniture for the Alexandria Library. How did that come about?

 

 

CD: Because the reading room of the library was so large, seating about 2,000 people in one open space, the furniture became crucial to the design of the space. It was a bit like master plan, because of the numbers of people and amount of space the reading room was like a small city; the bookshelves were the buildings. We have always worked as an interior design company as well; we are joined in three different disciplines: landscape, interior, and architecture. Most of our projects begin with the involvement of those three disciplines.

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Turner Art Museum, Margate, UK (with Steven Spencer)
Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

COMPETITIONS: In going after a commission here in the U.S. there are undoubtedly challenges which are quite different than one finds in Europe. Even though you were familiar with this culture, what adjustments have to be made on this side of the ocean?

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

CD: When we came to New York, our first thought wasn’t just in terms of working in the United States, we were interested in the Americas in totality. We’ve had people in our office from South America. I have close links in Central America and Canada.  For us, the notion of the Americas was more of an ideal understanding, than just one specific country. Maybe you could think of it in terms of the explorers coming to the new world. In the U.S., it’s often forgotten that it is linked to a very interesting cosmos of culture. Mexico and Canada have as much influence on the U.S. as the U.S. does upon them in cultural terms. Even here in New York there is a large population from Central America


COMPETITIONS: Is Snøhetta in China yet?

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

CD: We are doing some limited work there; but it hasn’t been a central focus of what we have been doing. From my own personal standpoint, I think there is too much happening too quickly. Having been to China many times, I don’t see a lot of improvement; I simply see a lot more chess pieces. I love China and took it upon myself to learn to read and write Chinese. The situation in China today reminds me a little of the 60s and 70s when you had a lot of new universities being built around the world, and you had American architects building this university campus style of concrete and gridded patterns. They weren’t really about where the universities were. There is a notion to the international style that is intriguing, but very little was paid to climate specific necessities and culture of the locales.

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Norwegian Embassy, Berlin, Germany

 

COMPETITIONS: The Embassy competition in Berlin. Since it is in that collection of Scandinavian embassys, I wondered to what extent the siting became a major challenge?

 

 CD: The master plan was provided for the competition, and we recognized that the Norwegian embassy had a unique position by sheer coincidence in this framework for the Nordic Union’s complex. It was very central and had a key position at the end of an internal courtyard. It went through several stages of development during the competition. At one point, the front of the building was left open, and trees were to be planted, rather than the stone that is there today. As the project came closer to its conclusion, we needed to mark it with something very clear. The stone from Norway became more and more a key feature until it was decided it would be included. Originally it was thought we wouldn’t be able to ship it in one piece; so we thought about cutting it into smaller pieces. In the end we found the wherewithal to convince everyone that taking this stone of 120 tons from Norway to Berlin was feasible. It turned out to be cheaper than expected. We did some calculations, and because that stone is one piece and has very little maintenance, it turns out to be 30% cheaper than a corresponding glass wall of the same size.

 

COMPETITIONS: You seem to concentrate a lot on cultural institutions, although you have done other projects. Is this still going to be the main thrust of what you intend to pursue?

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner ©Snøhetta)

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Renderings from the original competition entry (©Snøhetta)

Calgary Public Library Competition 2014 (Development Version of winner Courtesy Snøhetta)

CD: Public institutions have such a wide sensibility—they can be anything from a library to a museum to a school. We actually have done two schools, one for autistic children and one for people learning how to build buildings—a kind of carpentry school. We have also worked with a fellow from South America trying to develop a farm in Colombia, where the workers had a reasonable conditions. Actually, those are most often the projects that are found in competitions, and we have traditionally acquired most of our work through competitions.

It’s not all we want to do, and we don’t necessarily see ourselves only working on large projects. We do a number of very small projects also. Many times these are overlooked, because the media isn’t so interested in them. We have done some very small gardens, which can be quite fascinating. We would like to do work in places in developing countries. We have tried, although unsuccessfully, to build a library in Guinea in West Africa. So we are interested to work in places where that might not necessarily have access to contemporary architecture or architectural technology.

As I was walking over here it occurred to me that making a building in the public realm is still much like a competition in the sense that you are still trying to find the right solution.