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Architecture and landscape in harmony: A portrait of Snøhetta

At one of Europe’s most picturesque harbours, a glass cube projects out from snow-white sheets of marble. The Oslo Opera House has not only become a cultural symbol of the city, but also one of the most prominent examples of its creators’ innovative approach to design: For the past 30 years, architects from Snøhetta have been designing buildings that redefine the relationship between landscape and architecture.

More than just the tip of the iceberg: Snøhetta sculpts landscapes

The design of the Oslo Opera House – reminiscent of an iceberg – is a not-so-subtle nod to the identity of the architects who created it. “Snøhetta” translates as “snow cap” and is also the name of a famous Norwegian mountain.

Just like these natural landmarks, Snøhetta’s buildings never exist as single entities: They are created and constructed in the context of their man-made or natural environment.

This approach was applied by Snøhetta founders Kjetil Thorsen (born 1958 in Karmøy, Norway) and Craig Dykers (born 1961 in Frankfurt, Germany) on their first major project: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, which was ultimately to catapult them to international fame.

Impressions from the Opera House of Oslo. Source: Visit OSLO / YouTube

An innovative approach to design: Architecture as a multi-faceted discipline

In 1989, the library design – which has since gone on to win multiple awards – beat off competition from 526 other entries in an international design competition, winning the previously unknown architects the fame and recognition they deserved and enabling them to found their first architecture studio in Oslo.

The young entrepreneurs aimed to build a company that would bring together the individual sub-sections of architecture under one umbrella: Uniting the disciplines of landscape architecture, design and engineering to create pioneering new spaces.

From its latest works, such as the project Under (2019) – in which Snøhetta created Europe’s first underwater restaurant – it is clear that this approach is still shaping and driving the firm’s strategy today. Like a semi-submerged rock, the 34-metre building juts out of the water on Norway’s rugged coastline resting on the sea bed five metres below the surface. The raw concrete shell of the building serves as a kind of artificial coral reef, providing a habitat for sea creatures that will, over time, gradually become fully integrated into the marine environment.

Underwater buildings are interesting because of their architecture.

Architecture at the forefront of sustainability

In 2005, architect Jette Cathrin Hopp joined the Snøhetta team, and has been championing the cause of sustainability and energy efficiency in her designs ever since. She headed up the conversion of an office block in the Norwegian municipality of Bærum into the Powerhouse Kjørbo(2014), Norway’s first renovated building to produce more energy than it consumes.

The company’s team of architects recently developed the world’s first hotel with a positive energy balance: Svart, located at the foot of the Svartisen glacier in the Norwegian municipality of Meløy, is set to open its doors to visitors in 2021. Thanks to its energy-efficient construction, environmentally friendly materials and cutting-edge technology for independent energy generation, the hotel will satisfy the Positive Energy Building standard.

Architecture Snohetta close to the water.
Architecture Snohetta portrait.
One of the famoust buildings from the architecture of Snohetta.

Prestigious buildings for culture and society

In the course of its 30-year history, Snøhetta has designed numerous award-winning buildings, including the Olympic Art Museum in Lillehammer, which was the official venue for cultural activities during the 1994 Winter Olympics, the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin (2001) and the National September 11 Memorial Museum & Pavilion in New York (2014).

Snøhetta’s next cultural project is set to be completed in China by 2023. Like the Oslo Opera House (2008), the design for the Grand Opera House in Shanghai is based on the concept of creating a publicly accessible roof space for human interaction. A spiral staircase will connect the existing landscape with the roof.

Grand Opera House in Shanghai. Source: Vimeo / Ori

In spite of his international fame, company founder Kjetil Thorsen still prefers to work in his home country of Norway.

From this familiar landscape, the architect helps to keep the company on course for success.

Have you seen any of Snøhetta’s works on your travels? Tell us about your favourite buildings in the comments!

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