These experimental designers, a mix of architects and landscape architects, are now known for their small-scale, sensitive landscape projects, such as the temporary Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2007. The firm's competition win for a visitor center on the World Trade Center site in New York City has captured international attention.
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Named after a snowy mountain range in Norway, Snøhetta is headed by cofounders Kjetil Thorsen and Craig Dykers, with offices in Oslo and New York. The Oslo Opera House is their most prestigious and largest built project to date. It opened to critical acclaim in April 2008.
Largely publicly funded, the Opera House took five years to build and cost about €500 million, or about €100 for each of Norway's nearly five million citizens. The public was invited to view all 350 entries to the competition.
Project leader Simon Ewings says the design that won the competition is essentially the design that was built. "In Norway, you choose both the architect and the design in an architectural competition," he says from Snøhetta's waterfront warehouse studio near the opera house. "Once it's won, it is quite difficult for the client to really change it or reduce it a lot."
Snøhetta's winning entry featured three key concepts, each relating to a different material. The timber "wave wall" refers to the concept of a dividing wall or threshold between land and sea. The metal-clad "factory" is the concept for flexible and functional back-of-house and production spaces. The "carpet" refers to the horizontal sloping surfaces of the roof.
Views into workshops at street level and glimpses of ballet rehearsal rooms upstairs illustrate one aspect of the architects' "urban strategy" for the opera, relating the building successfully to its urban environment. Glazed gaps on the street-facing metal facade give passersby views into the lobby and shop, and at night transmit the glow from inside.
The participatory design process and spirit of collaboration is deeply engrained in the building. There are plenty of spaces visitors can experience without needing a ticket, and also spaces for learning and experimentation.
Local artists Astrid Lovaas and Kirsten Wagle designed eight different concave and convex patterns resembling binary code for the stamped aluminum cladding panels, giving texture and scale to the surfaces.
Behind the metal-clad facade, the interior lobby meanders around the main auditorium, with a bar and box office area designed for lingering. Looking up into the timber-clad space, the undulating interior of dark oak partly conceals a ramped processional route that leads slowly up to the auditorium.
Artist Olafur Eliasson transformed three support spaces in the main foyer with a sparkling lighting installation, its three-dimensional perforated panels forming a tactile, illuminated geometric grille that glows intermittently in different colors.
During the design process, Snøhetta worked especially closely with the various user groups to determine the sizes and programs for back-of-house spaces, ensuring the facility was exactly what the users needed, with consideration for future growth and technologies. The building has more than 1,000 rooms due to its extensive production and workshop spaces, three auditoria, rehearsal rooms, cafe, and restaurant.
Snøhetta designed the impressive crystal chandelier in the main auditorium, made of more than 5,000 hand-cast crystals. At first glance resembling a skylight or a mirror ball, the fixture works to gently diffuse light into the space, with 800 LED lights set back in a reflective metal wrapper.
Excellent acoustic performance was a top priority for the building. Snøhetta met the technically complex acoustic requirements with a simple and functional interior. The architects experimented with the design for the main auditorium, seeking to avoid the large fabric flowers, heavy draping tapestries, and other typical fussy acoustic absorbers disguised as decorations. Instead the architects wanted a minimal interior, showcasing high-quality finishes and furniture and the stunning chandelier.
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