NEW CENTERS

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CRAIG DYKERS, A FOUNDING PARTNER OF OSLO-BASED SNØHETTA, AND THOMAS MCQUILLAN

TMQ: Snøhetta has recently been commissioned to start design work on the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center, at the former World Trade Center site. What do you feel are the lessons of September 11th for architecture?

CD: When the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, unfolded it seemed at the time that nothing could possibly heal the sorrow and pain that so many experienced on that terrible day and the many months following. Yes, many of us have inherited the chaos of this day and these events cannot be forgotten. But through what must be seen as gift, we can gain through time the strength to overcome this burden that has been thrust upon us. Rebuilding and renewal are fundamentally built from the strength of will and spirit. From what may seem incontrovertible arise new perspectives.

Through a long process it has become clear that renewal here at the World Trade Center site would be both a description of memory and a vessel for hope. This place could not be forever bound to tragedy alone, but through the will of many, it can be seen as part of the circle of life.

It had been decided therefore that a memorial would be placed at the heart of this place. Around this core would be the seeds of the future. Therefore, placing a building here is more than simply setting out a construction project; it is also a description of this story.

In this way, the groups working with the redevelopment deliberately chose to expand its character with vibrant cultural places of commerce and contemporary urban life. This choice is one of optimism.

We at Snøhetta never imagined that we would find ourselves addressing these issues so directly. It had not been so intimate a part of our world until now. Although some in our office were affected more directly than others by the events of that day, we remained as distant observers, empathizing through thought.

We chose to let those that seemed more directly affected sort through their own process of renewal. In a way, after the essential recovery work had been completed and all the flowers and wreaths were left upon the embassy doorsteps around the world, and all the calls to friends and loved ones had been made, it almost seemed an intrusion to push our way into the certain struggle that would ensue. It seemed that New Yorkers themselves should compose the end result.

In time we also found the strength to participate and although the struggle is not complete, it was only now that we chose to enter the arena. The Museum Complex was the first effort we made to partake in any selection process for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. Perhaps it was through this distance that we gained our current perspectives that we hope may positively contribute to this next courageous stage of the process.

TMQ: How does this affect your architectural intervention?

The Museum site in particular addresses the very core of this conversation. While it is clear that there should be a memorial and it is also clear that there should be commercial and cultural institutions, it is only at this one point that the two come together. This was a deliberate motion in the Studio Daniel Libeskind master plan and it represents the crux of perception in experiencing this place. It has remained foremost in our minds since we began to work with this project.

There have been many discussions surrounding this choice in the master plan. To many it seems controversial or opportunistic and to others it seems natural. To some it seems to interfere with the sanctity of the memorial while others feel it complements the energy of the place. The memorial is acknowledged as "the heart" and the cultural institutions maintain "the mind" of this vital place. In any manner of speaking, truth can be found in all of these attitudes if one looks close enough. We at Snøhetta have spent a good deal of effort considering these issues, talking with different groups both related and unrelated, as well as exploring the architecture that has been presented by all the different projects now planned.

Through this we have come to admire and respect the choice. We say this not because we must work with the choice as a given, but because we truly believe it. To us a cultural institution is more than simply a building; it is a powerful resource that is as important to our lives as anything we can make. It is through our development of culture that we discover our humanity. Culture is life. It is the expression of not only those alive today, but also those who have contributed in the past. Culture is a kind of memorial, a social memorial rather than a sculptural one. In this way it can be seen as a part of the memorial itself.

In this particular case two important institutions have been chosen to occupy the Museum site: the newly born International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center, moving here from nearby Soho. These are differing types of cultural places but sharing a common space, like the city of New York is so accustomed to.

But there is more to consider. Below the sidewalks and plazas of the memorial and World Trade Center site are a great many complex transportation and infrastructure systems. The PATH terminal, subway lines, water and electrical lines and so on will fill the ground below our feet. Due to the specific geometry of this place and its interaction with the newly rebuilt PATH terminal and subway lines, the museum site will also have to accommodate the many technical needs of these structures.

For this reason, the Museum becomes a vital core to the successful operation of its surrounding institutions. The Museum can accommodate ventilation shafts or fire exit requirements from the PATH terminal below that might otherwise intrude upon the serenity of the memorial garden. If the memorial is the heart of this place, and the cultural institutions are its mind, then the museum buildings are the lungs.

We strive to work toward a design that melds with its surroundings, one that seems inevitable in its connection to the memorial, one that seems as much a part of the memorial garden as it is connected to the new city streets of Fulton and Greenwich. In this way we strive to bind the worlds of past, present and future at this unique location in New York and the world.

TMQ: In speaking of the city with respect to the world, I would like to return to Oslo for a moment. There is much talk of the dissolution of the traditional national boundaries and the development of inter-urban networks as the defining paradigm of our time. What are your thoughts on this theory, and what role does Oslo have to play in an international context?

CG: Globalism is a much misunderstood concept, with a great deal of emphasis being placed upon distinctions and blending. At times people embrace globalism while at other times it is abhorrent. Many people seem to appreciate a fine French wine sitting in Mexico; however an American sandwich on a Calcutta corner is blasphemous to some, unless of course you couldn't spend one more day eating Punjabi snake heads and the site of the Golden Arches suddenly inspires joy and hope. We are all globalized in some form or another. There is no truly pure heritage. Most of what we call identity is simply a collection of acceptable habits and gestures. Nevertheless there are unique attributes of quality that can be found in various contexts around the world, and with the onset of ever greater speeds of infusion, it simply means we have to think a lot harder about what is important to us.

From an urban standpoint cities are by nature a uniform recognition of human development; therefore at some level they all represent some common understanding of human need. Cultural stigma doesn't completely erase basic human conditions and emotions. The degrees to which these ideas are exposed are perhaps where the differences lie.

Oslo is an intimate city, a place where it easy to comprehend most of its limits and centers. Most of the downtown area can be easily traversed and nearly all the surrounding areas can be reached by collective transport from two central hubs very near to one another. There is a limitation on larger commercial shopping venues, keeping many smaller shops in use and generally there is a changing atmosphere throughout the weekend since most shops are closed on Sundays, placing less demand on the city streets for one day a week.

Will Oslo influence other parts of the world directly? It seems unlikely simply due to its minimal size. Also the Oslo county and city authorities do not seem to be particularly inventive or resourceful in finding new ways to make the city efficient from a sustainability point of view, and that is a pressing topic in the world today. Cultural life, especially with regard to contemporary arts is little appreciated by the city coffers, and we find only relatively straightforward social initiatives to bring the city together across diverse cultural regions.

TMQ: With Snøhetta's new Norwegian Opera House nearing completion in the newly reclaimed harbor area of central Oslo, how do you see the role of the project as a generator of urban growth?

CD: Rather unusually there was no clear or distinct master plan for the area surrounding the opera at the time of the design competition, nor has one existed up until the present. Of course various scenarios have been thoroughly discussed on many professional and public levels, but the end result of these discussions has not presented a cohesive urban framework socially, functionally or aesthetically. Because of this, and the fact that the Opera is such a large project physically, it will certainly provide the central point of energy as new projects develop around it. Nearby the new Bjørvika corridor will also begin to characterize this place. Other than a fairly anonymous, although tree-lined and quaint new street structure, it is difficult to say if the character of the area will engender pedestrian or vehicular use, as it is today. If successful, then I would hope that the area will be returned to the pedestrian population and the natural link to the sea restored.

TMQ: How do you see the future of the Snøhetta in a ten year perspective?

CD: It is always dangerous to prophesize, but there are certain things that can be considered as attempting to deal with the future. Since we are not named after a person, the company is not entirely dependent upon a few individuals to succeed. Ownership of design belongs to many rather than one or two. This means that in ten years time it may be a completely different constellation of people than we have today, creating new responses to place. Also we strive to work with a range of project types from the more entertaining and highly funded cultural projects, to those projects lesser understood and with more constrained budgets in developing countries. It is important for us to continue to expand our capacities in places that don't seem natural. We hope to work with a wider range of intellects outside of the profession, such as authors and artists, or filmmakers. We hope that our work with landscape architecture and interior architecture will approach new levels of integration and dynamism. In terms of place, we will always be an Oslo company, certainly, but will there be remote studios, places of experimentation and interaction in other parts of the world. I hope so. We can only benefit from conditions that place us outside our ordinary lives.

New National Opera House, Oslo. Soft versus hard describe indoors from out. Connecting land and sea, a public platform rises from the fjord. The platform meets the water, renewing coastal conditions in the city center.