Snøhetta’s Vision for the WTC Cultural Institutions

Recently, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) selected Frank Gehry and the little-known Norwegian firm Snøhetta to create schematic designs for the performing arts and museum complexes planned for the World Trade Center site. To date, Snøhetta—which specializes in architecture, interiors, and landscape design—is best known for its work on the Alexandria Library in Egypt and the Lillehammer Olympic Art Museum in Norway; its other current projects include the Turner Contemporary Museum in Margate, England and the National Opera House, in the firm’s native Oslo.

Kjetil Thorsen, a founding partner of Snøhetta, spoke with Sarah Haun about winning the WTC Museum Complex commission, as well as the collaborative process he and his partner Craig Dykers anticipate in order to create “memorable but unimposing” homes on the Ground Zero site for the relocated Drawing Center and newly created International Freedom Center. Excerpts from their discussion follow.

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Sarah Haun: How did you win the commission to do the Cultural Center at Ground Zero?

Kjetil Thorsen: I would suggest there were three things. The most important, I think, was the work we’ve done as a firm so far. The second thing was how we said we would approach the process itself and how we described the process. And the third one could be—and this is purely hypothetical—that we are politically neutral, representing a country with a longstanding democratic background and history of peacemaking.

You are relatively unknown outside the international architecture and design community. Do you think it made a difference that people brought no associations with your firm to the table?

We’re not big famous architects, and that might actually be an advantage for us. Doing signature buildings in a certain style is what a lot of big famous architects do, whereas our approach is to do something unique, but in a way that feels natural. Our buildings are memorable but unimposing, and they’re very much generated out of relationships and interaction between the land and sky.

In New York City, the landscape is largely invented, so how will that happen?

There’s actually a lot of variation in New York’s topography. The strongest is the artificial topography—the cityscape—but there is also the natural landscape which is continuously, slightly changing. So in designing architecture for the site, we can relate to both.

Your WTC building hasn’t been designed yet, but do you have any early thoughts about what they might look like?

We call the World Trade Center project a negotiated building, because it’s negotiating a lot of things: public and private, memories and dreams, past and present and future, a memorial and lively urban hub. And it’s negotiating speed and tempo. The nature of the site, with the commercial activity of Fulton and Greenwich Streets on one side, and the calm, peaceful memorial on the other, means that the building has to serve a kind of off-ramp, on-ramp function to mediate the pace of life there. The design process is also quite literally a negotiation—between the public and institutions, among the institutions themselves, and among all the individuals present at the meetings.

Are there other aspects of physicality or materials that you’ve thought about for this project?

Well, to enhance this idea of negotiation we need to find materials that are human, because they have to talk directly to people. The materials have to be as sensitive as skin, so we are looking at natural materials. When you touch wood, it is different than when you touch steel or stone. So in areas where the building will have a direct relationship to people, we will use something that is comfortable to be close to. But beyond that, it’s very hard to say.

You mentioned your approach to the work process as one of the things that helped you win this project. Tell me about that.

The way we think about the collaborative process at Snøhetta is: How do we integrate people? How do we focus people? How do we come across? Are we patient enough to listen to people?

Architecture is all about creating pictures in people’s minds. When you make the first line, then you find out how solid this communication has been, whether the interpretation of that picture has led to a common understanding of what the building will be. Obviously we support that with diagrams—functional diagrams, urban diagrams, environmental diagrams and models—and then slowly enhance and pull this building out of the discussions.

In a sense, the most important thing that you bring to the whole project may be your neutral outsiders’ perspective.

In the long term, responses to the museum complex will evolve. People will give new meanings to it and have different interpretations as time goes by. Now it’s an emotional site, but it will turn more into a direct historical site. It doesn’t mean that the monuments will not still be emotional in the future, but the element of emotion is going to decrease after generations.

You’re going to have a somewhat permanent population of repeat visitors—workers and tenants—as well as a constant flow of visitors coming from all of the world to see the memorial, visit the cultural institutions, attend performances and lectures. How will you accommodate all these different purposes in one place?

The WTC site plan is as much about the public spaces and spaces between the buildings—the green plants, the environmental conditions—as it is about form. Form and material alone do not create good architecture. The program and functions of the cultural buildings, and the movement of people in the city around it, constitute the urban topography that we have to accommodate. If you have a lot of people gathered in one place, and that place is busy 24 hours a day, that in itself is a different topography than a place that only operates from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. We will have to address that.

Of course there will be an enormous number of visitors. I like the diversity of purposes and [people] in this part of the city. It’s what makes New York so absolutely amazing.

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