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Kjetil Trædal Thorsen. Photo: Charlotte Sverdrup
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen. Photo: Charlotte Sverdrup

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Kjetil Trædal Thorsen take it from the rooftop

Snøhetta has put Norwegian architecture on the map. One of Sweden’s top cultural critics corners founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen on the roof of the Oslo Opera House.

Oslo’s Opera House bobs like an iceberg at the edge of the fjord. The dazzling white structure is clad in Italian Carrara marble. There’s so much of it that Snøhetta, the architecture firm that designed the building, had to lobby hard for the non-Norwegian stone.
It quickly becomes clear to the visitor that marble was an inspired choice for a glacier.
After just a few steps on my trek to the top, I stumble on a nasty little edge. What’s this? A crack in the ice? I can’t help but laugh.
You’re supposed to feel like an adventurer, like a snow-blind Roald Amundsen or Fridtjof Nansen crossing the Arctic tundra, gasping for breath on as you near your illusive goal – this evening’s opera performance.
You’re supposed to have fun. Visitors find themselves not only standing atop an opera house, but also in the midst of a provocative work of art. Or, to put it a more fun way, an architectural theme park. And we haven’t even ventured inside yet.

Kjetil Trædal Thorsen with Ulrika Knutson. Photo: Charlotte Sverdrup

A dangerous opera house?

Much has been written about the Oslo opera house, but most of it fails to acknowledge its humor or playfulness. Perhaps people simply don’t dare to approach something as earnest as a national opera with a giggle.
Kids get it. Inside they can be seen sliding down the sloping walls of the cloakroom at the first opportunity.
When the opera house opened in 2008, humor was in short supply as debate centered on a perceived lack of safety. Not only was this Norway’s biggest tripping hazard, but the front also sloped steeply into the water – with no barrier. People could fall!
Safety is important in Scandinavia, and other architects shook their heads in wonder at the audacity of creating a building that was… well, dangerous.

“Norwegians work to live, while Swedes live to work.”

Just how “dangerous” is a matter of opinion. At Snøhetta the opera house was nicknamed “Granny’s Adventure,” and granted, anyone taking a slightly ­tipsy wander along the roof’s white expanse risks falling flat on their face. The building’s inauguration resulted in one dislocated shoulder and a broken tooth.

Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, co-founder of ­Snøhetta, points out that people fall over on Oslo’s main street, Karl Johans Gate, every single day. Kjetil Trædal Thorsen runs up the roof to show us where the building merges with sea and sky.
“We wanted to break down the barrier between the building, the sky, and the sea, and between tradition and the audience. The ­opera house was meant to welcome a new kind of audience: children, Sunday strollers, and sunbathers,” he says.
And it does.
He admits to being somewhat nervous about the seamless “shoreline” – the wall that slopes down into the water with no barrier – but in the six years since the opera house opened the salty fjord has made its own artistic contributions with seaweed and barnacles. This boundary between nature and culture is now a mysterious, shimmering black-green.

“I overhear two couples comparing the building to its famous Sydney counterpart. They think Sydney’s is cooler than Oslo’s”. Trædal Thorsen simply shrugs.
“A half-finished Sydney Opera House was one of our inspirations. Look at photos of [Danish architect] Jörn Utzon’s opera house before they put the lid on!” he says.
“Perhaps people were expecting something more spectacular.”
He pauses before adding, “However, what you remember afterwards is just as important as what you actually see.”
The Snøhetta team set out to create a building that you would remember with your entire body, whether you stumbled on the steps or enjoyed Mozart there. “The architecture is in many ways related to scenography,” Trædal ­Thorsen says.

Photo: Charlotte Svedrup

Inspired by Norway

What influenced you as an architect?
“The clichés of social democracy in Norway. I was born into it. It’s in my blood!”
He means a relatively homogeneous society that celebrates equality, dignity, civil participation, and an effective income distribution policy. For Trædal Thorsen these are the cornerstones of “Norwegian” architecture. Another big influence is nature, a staple of Norwegian folk tales, songs, and children’s books.
The Snøhetta office is multicultural in many ways, but clearly Norwegian in its work ethic, Trædal Thorsen says.
“Norwegians work to live, while Swedes live to work.”
A few eyebrows were raised in Snøhetta’s­ New York office when Trædal Thorsen announced that both mothers and fathers would have to take parental leave.
“That’s an order!” he said.
“Of course you become a better architect when you spend time with your children. That wasn’t easy for the Americans to digest,” says Trædal Thorsen, who has two children, one of whom he adopted from Ethiopia.

Trædal Thorsen describes himself as being more interested in ideas than aesthetics.
Here’s a cosmopolitan Norwegian who embraces his national heritage but is also able to look at it critically.
 “Stave churches are not that Norwegian – the same wooden architecture is used south of the Danube. But the Oseberg ship and other Viking ships are unique Norwegian treasures. The character of the ships, like the ornate Viking dragon motifs and mythical creatures that decorate the stave churches, originates in the shift from paganism to Christianity.”

His architectural heroes are Sweden’s Gunnar ­Asplund­ and Finland’s Alvar Aalto, despite the fact that modernism never quite took root in  Norway.
Venice is another source of inspiration for Trædal Thorsen as is La Libela in Ethiopia, where local architects carved Coptic churches out of the rock in the 15th century.
Trædal Thorsen says he dreamed of becoming an artist when he was young, but wasn’t good enough. He’s now married to one and works alongside the likes of Olafur Eliasson and Bjarne Melvang. Snøhetta meanwhile is the biggest name in Nordic architecture.

Offices all over the world

The firm employs 160 people at its offices in Oslo, Innsbruck, San Francisco, and New York. Founded in 1987, the firm had its international breakthrough in 1989, when it won the tender for the prestigious contract to build the Library of Alexandria.
During the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 both Cairo and Alexandria were rocked by riots and unrest, and the library was clearly under threat. But the people of Alexandria came to the defense of the building.
“People stood hand in hand and built a long protective wall using nothing but their own bodies. It was very moving,” Trædal Thorsen says.
Every new project has to live up to Snø­hetta’s reputation and previous work. Inevitably that creates pressure, but the pressure mustn’t stifle creativity.
“You always start with a blank sheet of paper,” Trædal Thorsen says.
In order to fill it with ideas, the group has to get “into the zone,” which it does by reading books, listening to music, going for walks, or visiting inspiring places.
Snøhetta employs both landscape architects and ­interior designers. Before work started on the Oslo Opera House, the company brought in ­musicians,­ singers, dancers, carpenters, and ­librettists.
“The person who writes librettos may have that one decisive idea. At first, it’s all about extreme concentration and making sure that nothing is lost in conversation,” Trædal Thorsen says.
“We have to help the group so that inspiration comes naturally.”

What about Snøhetta’s own brand?
“We have to keep in mind that however important the project is, nothing is more important than Snøhetta itself. If we’re to be a true Scandinavian cultural institution,­ we need to look at things from a long-term ­perspective. We can’t design buildings that will come back and stab us in the back 35 years later.”

Text: Ulrika Knutson

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