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Chaos within safe borders

Chaos within safe borders

| Text and photos: Björn Lindahl

You feel it as soon as you step inside Norwegian Snøhetta’s offices; something exciting is happening here. In what used to be a big harbour authority storage hall, overlooking the ravishing Oslo fjord through a huge glass window, 50 people are sat drawing the future.

“It’s a conscious philosophy we have that people should be mixed in this way”, says Astrid Renata Van Veen.

“Here you have everything: Muslim and Americans, accountants and a cook”, Jim Dodson jokes.

“Sometimes it is those who are working on a different project from yourself and who’s sat next to you who come up with the best ideas for what you’re doing”, says Eli Synnervåg.

All three are architects for Norway’s most successful architect firm. Snøhetta designed the huge library in Alexandria in Egypt. These days they are building Oslo’s new opera house, just a stone’s throw away over in Bjørvika. And recently they won a competition to draw a museum which will be built on the site of the World Trade Centre in New York. Snøhetta were invited alongside a handful of other, well-known architect firms, to explain how they would go about the task.

The jury was convinced, not only by the presentation, but also by they way Snøhetta described how they in practical terms could live up to the ideals assigned to the project.

Eli Synnervåg, Astrid Renata Van Veen and Jim Dobson

Eli Synnervåg, Astrid Renata Van Veen and Jim Dodson.

“But it hasn’t always been this good. 2003 was a horrible year. We participated in twenty architect competitions, and won only one. And we didn’t even get that assignment”, says Jim Dodson.

The other two also look serious.

“When things looked like they could get no worse, the management decided we should move here, in August 2004, with all that involves of packing and extra work. In retrospect it was a stroke of genius. But it could have gone to hell!” says Eli Synnervåg.

Instead, all gritted their teeth and committed themselves even more. Otherwise there is a lot of laughter. For the first ten minutes, all three laugh at my questions when I try to find out what makes Snøhetta such a good place to work.

“People on all levels interact”, says Astrid.

“I don’t think you should delve deeper into that”, jokes Eli.

“We’re very good at partying”, continues Jim.

Coffee is dutifully put on the table, but remains in its dispenser. Everyone here has a lot to say, but no one interrupts each other.

”No idea is too silly. People will listen to you if you’re experienced or fresh. It’s important to feel secure in order to say what you want. If you can’t trust people to listen, you’ll hold back a part of yourself”, says Astrid.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

Snøhetta lives off ideas. The firm’s trademark is to dare think untraditionally. Like it did when competing for the assignment to build a new museum to honour the artist William Turner in the UK. Snøhetta decided to move the entire project to a different plot, and proposed a building that would double the costs. They still won the assignment. The museum, shaped as a large sail, will sit in the water.

“But we don’t want a ”Snøhetta-profile” on our buildings. That would stigmatise us”, says Astrid.

I ask her to explain that further, as most businesses are looking for just that; an easily recognisable profile.

“It would hamper us too much. We want what we call a “self-regulating chaos”. We define our area of work as a large cylinder – inside the cylinder you can do what you want, as long as you don’t jump outside its walls.”

Then they start debating where to really draw the line, what you’re really not allowed to do.

“It would be if you exploit that freedom at the expense of others”, Eli suggests.

Snøhetta is a collective, where nobody owns an idea. Compared to other architect firms, everyone (also the most senior) earns less than what they could do if they were only looking after themselves. Salaries are set according to
year of graduation.

“I thought there would be many sharp elbows when I first started here, but they don’t exist”, says Eli.

“One principle which makes us stand out from foreign competitors is that we never exploit students to work for free. The condition of pay is the same for everyone”, says Astrid.

When Snøhetta won the assignment to draw the opera, they needed to almost double their staff. This led to discussions about how to maintain their  “flow” – could fifty people work as well together as twenty-five?
The transition was a success, thanks to study trips, parties and a rule saying everybody eats lunch at twelve.
“Snøhetta staff is incredibly stable, very few want to leave.”
“Only those on maternity or paternity leave disappear – and they come back”, says Jim.

But doesn’t working on such huge and exciting projects increase the risk of getting burnt out? What happens when the average age of the employees is higher than today?

“There are no brownie points for anyone for working late every night. The management encourages us to lead a meaningful life also outside of the office”, says Astrid.

Still, work pressure can sometimes get very high, especially towards the conclusion of a project. So how relevant is Snøhetta as an example of a good work place? After all, here architects are allowed to work with projects which their colleagues would give up their right hand to join in on – be it drawing buildings, landscape planning or interior design.

“The reason we’re so happy is fifty per cent the work place and fifty per cent the actual projects”, says Jim.

“We create our own ambitions. The best things for us aren’t the largest projects, but the unique ones”, says Astrid.
When we walk around the open-plan office, it seems those who work with the new railway station at Skøyen outside Oslo are as enthusiastic as the opera crew.

“It’s important to put the working groups together in a correct manner. The worst thing you can do is to let the same group of people work on one project after the other”, says Renata Van Veen.

Norway's most succesful architect studio

Ole Gustavsen, Snøhetta

Ole Gustavsen (picture above) looks in to the future. He is the director of Norway's most succesful architecture studio.

- We live by loosing. Snøhetta is invited to competitions all over the world. In nine cases out of ten we loose, but we get paid for coming up with ideas, he says.

Some of Snøhetta's most well-known buildings:

The library in Alexandria

The Norwegian Opera House

Turner Contemporary Museum i England

The Culture Center at Ground Zero in New York 

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