Entrance to the Sea

“We felt that the hall itself didn’t need reinventing,” says architect Craig Dykers of the elegantly traditional oak-lined theater designed by Snøhetta, the firm he leads with partner Kjetil Thorsen, for Oslo’s new—and first purpose-built—opera house. The rest of the structure—a 387,501-square-foot $320 million complex that represents “the largest cultural project Norway has developed in recent memory”—remains anything but conventional. That the building’s glacierlike form spans both land and water, evoking landscape as much as architecture, is appropriate: Snøhetta’s design speaks not only to the interconnectedness between the natural and built environments but also to the individual’s relationship to both.

“Our discussions were based on a few big ideas,” Dykers says of the design process. The first involved questioning the client’s request for a monument. “We wanted to make a social rather than a physical monument, one that stood out by virtue of its interaction with the people around it,” the architect explains. This decision evolved partly from the fact that, as Dykers observes, “it costs so much to build an opera house, but few people use it.” Accordingly, the pub­lic character increased, the outcome being a great forecourt that slopes upward on either side of the theater space and flows into the roof, all of it covered in white Italian marble—“the stone with the most music,” project manager Tarald Lundevall says of the material’s acous­tical properties—and all inhab­itable. “You can climb on and experience the building without going inside,” Dykers observes.

The form also answered Snøhetta’s desire to connect Oslo’s fjord with the nearby Ekeberg hills via a reconsideration of the urban waterfront. “Usually you have fences that keep you from accessing the water, freeways that disconnect cities from the natural environment,” Dykers says. The design addresses this relationship dramatically in the forecourt, the outer edge of which slips below sea level, so that the entire complex seems to be ascending from the water. At the same time, Dykers notes, “as the slope rises, it projects toward the hills east of the site. So the building connects the two.”

Appropriately, the new building remains en-vir­onmentally friendly. Given that Den Norske Opera & Ballett is a national arts institution that also mounts ballet productions, “energy consumption was going to be high—over six hundred people work there,” Dykers says. Thus the south-facing wall features solar collectors embedded in the glass, and the dressing and administration areas receive daylight and natural ventilation. Snø­hetta performed an additional service during construction by stabilizing seabed pollutants produced by a sawmill that long ago occupied the site, rendering the water safe for sea creatures and other wildlife.

Bjørn Simensen, the opera’s artistic director and general manager, couldn’t be more pleased. “Snøhetta answered the challenge in three ways,” he says. “First, architecturally. It’s mon­umental but also simple, in accordance with the modest Norwegian soul—a Scandinavian social-democratic monumentality. Second, the functionality—the sound is marvelous. And finally, the economy. It’s a project that was on time”—the opera house opened in April, five months ahead of schedule—“and on budget. I think it’s the first time in opera history that’s happened.”

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