This past Monday evening I had the chance to sit down in a packed-beyond-capacity Art and Architecture Building Auditorium to hear a talk from Craig Dykers, co-founder of the world-renowned architectural firm Snohetta. Often when people meet Dykers, they are oblivious to the fact that Snohetta is indeed his company. “Where is this Mr. Snohetta?” they’ll ask.
This isn’t surprising, though. None of the names of Dykers or his co-founders appear readily on the Snohetta website. This is because since its conception in 1989, Snohetta has been an ever-growing interdisciplinary team of staff from all areas of the industry. They have a highly collaborative, hands-on process that enables them to best understand how the forms they create will become habitats for humanity.
“We’re taught that architecture is about the form itself,” Dykers said. Architects are superior at this, but they often fail to consider human relationships to their forms. Humans don’t sit calmly and comfortably within the confines of a concrete box that has been abstracted to the point of oppression.
“We’re irrational and unusual,” Dykers said. To this end, he pulled his shirt up and said, “Woah, what kind of creatures are we?” to a big laugh from the crowd.
Snohetta’s first project came in 1989 after winning an international design competition for the new Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The building’s sliced cylindrical concrete form demands one’s eye to study it. The library is of enormous value to its users and to the city as a whole, as it has brought about the same type of cultural and economic development its ancient predecessor did several thousand years ago.
When discussing the building’s impacts, Dykers stressed that, while economics is thought to drive culture in most cases, the construction of an important civic center like this can be invaluable to the community it serves. It educates the disenfranchised, hosts cultural events, brings in tourism and is a joy for its users.
Snohetta continued to influence the public sphere from here. In 2007, it completed its critically-acclaimed Oslo Opera House in Norway. The building is one of a kind in that its roof is constructed of concrete platforms that gradually slope down from the building’s roof to the water of the bay adjacent to the site. This directly engineers a connection between what is usually a building’s most private space, the roof, down past the public space to another previously inaccessible space, the water.
In America, local laws certainly would have mandated a handrail along the roof’s edge that would have completely detracted from the point of the project. It’s the completely free and unrestricted exploration the building allows — primarily outside — that lends its to public takeover. Dykers explained that on opening night, a couple were found having sex on the roof. Shortly after this, Dykers received a video of a daredevil Parisian motorcyclist using the building as a stunt course.
Although Dykers conceded that these acts were certainly illegal, he was visibly excited to have designed the habitat that contextualized them. According to him, architects “design our own zoo.” It’s an architect’s duty to consolidate the many complex programs (uses) most buildings require such that “people can intuitively use them.”
This is why Dykers loves making public spaces. In the case of his Hunt Library project for North Carolina State University, a five-story building, Dykers placed brightly-colored stairs by the front entrance that visibly run the length of the building at a gradual slope to incentivize users to take the stairs. Not only is this the healthier option, it also allows people to gain an understanding of the library’s resources and spaces far better than if they had taken the elevator.
When asked why he still continues to make libraries in this day and age, Dykers said it’s because libraries have always been about people. They existed for two thousand years prior to the mass dissemination of books, and he has no doubt that they will continue to exist long after the use of print. His new library for Ryerson University in Toronto, for example, was agreed to be a nice place to socialize by 93 percent of students.
Constructing spaces like this is what keeps Dykers excited about his job. Snohetta now has eight offices around the world that practice independently of each other. While each operates within its own local cultural context, Snohetta’s portfolio is unified by the common goal of creating habitats that foster social interaction.