Snøhetta designs America

A two-part look at the Norwegian firm’s US projects, from east to west

Photo: Snøhetta Snøhetta’s work on the famous French Laundry restaurant involves enlarging the garden and kitchen, adding an annex with butcher space, test kitchen, and offices. The outdoor spaces will gently deliver guests to the front door.

Photo: Snøhetta
Snøhetta’s work on the famous French Laundry restaurant involves enlarging the garden and kitchen, adding an annex with butcher space, test kitchen, and offices. The outdoor spaces will gently deliver guests to the front door.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The architectural firm Snøhetta was born in Norway, but has been making its mark globally. They have opened an office in New York and a studio in San Francisco, which is perhaps why our two coasts are seeing a plethora of projects with the Snøhetta stamp.

The New York City projects discussed in the prior article are situated in a dense urban area. So it is fascinating to see these juxtaposed with the projects Snøhetta is planning for the Pacific Northwest, a land of sea, lushness, and height, much more similar to Norwegian terrain. There is a smattering of drier wine country to boot. As with the east coast projects, I had a chance to ask the Snøhetta managers questions about each project. I find their insight and attention to details enlightening. I hope you will too.

The French Laundry Kitchen Expansion and Courtyard Renovation
This famous eatery located in California’s Napa Valley was established by world-renowned chef Thomas Keller in 1978. It is located in a historic building dating from 1900, which has had many incarnations, including a saloon and a French steam laundry.

The Laundry’s expansion and rejuvenation is being done in celebration of the restaurant’s 20th anniversary. The garden is being increased to twice its size, creating a delicate landscape lobby that gently delivers diners from the exterior space to the interior spaces. A new Kitchen Annex will house offices, a butcher, a prep room for produce, and a test kitchen. Perhaps the most delicious detail can be found in the kitchen expansion: “The form in the kitchen ceiling evokes a table cloth being gently unfurled across a table.” It also serves to hide the necessary mechanics.

Nic Rader, Director of West Coast Operations answered the following.

Victoria Hofmo: Snøhetta’s work at the French Laundry has several components working around an existing building. Can you speak about how these work together?

Nic Rader: The new components are all about refining and enhancing the guest experience. The courtyard and the grove create two new outdoor rooms as part of the arrival experience leading to the iconic blue door of the French Laundry’s main entry. The new kitchen is a lantern in the courtyard that pulls you through the garden and immediately connects you to the chefs and the food being prepared as well as allowing the chefs to be connected to the arriving guests. The annex is a new edge to the property that you move along.

VH: The ceiling, “evoking a table cloth being gently unfurled across a table, while hiding the ceiling’s functional elements,” is brilliant. Who came up with that idea?”

NR: Our work evolves through many conversations and a better understanding of both our client and their ambitions for a project. This idea was part of many brainstorms for the project and became an exciting narrative that we all latched onto.

VH: Can you note any other Snøhetta projects where the form, function, and purpose of the building fit together so seamlessly?

NR: One of the key characters of our work is that we do not hold ourselves to a building style or typology, which allows us to get down to the essence of what a project needs to be and work with the client to really understand their ambitions. I think you’d find that most, if not all of our projects, have such a balance and fit.

Photo: Snøhetta Concept rendering of what the Willamette Falls Riverwalk might look like. The design is currently in the very early stages.

Photo: Snøhetta
Concept rendering of what the Willamette Falls Riverwalk might look like. The design is currently in the very early stages.

Willamette Falls Riverwalk
The Willamette Falls, in Oregon City, are the second largest in the U.S. However, they have not been accessible to the public for over 100 years, as the site was occupied by the Blue Heron Paper Mill, which has been defunct since 2011. Snøhetta has been commissioned to bring the public back to the falls by creating access.

A sensitivity to the “Northwest’s collective history” is essential to Snøhetta’s project. And it is an amazing history beginning with natural elements, then leading to its use as a fishing site for Native Americans, and later, as Europeans developed the site, to produce wool and flour, process timber, and create paper and electricity.

Kelly Tigera of Snøhetta explained that, “For the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, we were only just selected for the project and the renderings on our website demonstrate an approach to the project, not a final design. The project hasn’t even started yet. At this time, we can’t answer any additional questions other than what was posted in our press release and on our website.”

I’m curious about many aspects of this project, such as how Snøhetta’s approach differs when building in a natural site rather than an urban setting, whether the paper mill will be incorporated into the project or demolished, how the historical layers of the site will be incorporated, and how the firm will involve the public in the design process.

Photo: MIR & Snøhetta The James Beard Public Market in Portland will include sweeping winglike features, and a permeability between indoor and outdoor space.

Photo: MIR & Snøhetta
The James Beard Public Market in Portland will include sweeping winglike features, and a permeability between indoor and outdoor space.

James Beard Public Market
Portland’s passion for food is palpable, with the many pop-up food sites, food trucks, and outdoor farmer’s markets. Portland once had a Public Market that closed in 1942.

Snøhetta has been hired to change that loss with a new Public Market building to be named after James Beard, a world-famous foodie and locavore who was a Portland native. The new building will connect to the Willamette River, near the site of Oregon’s original Public Market. There are physical challenges to be overcome at the site, as like many towns across America, much of the city was amputated from its waterfront decades ago in order to accommodate vehicles.

Snøhetta has found a clever and powerful way to meet these challenges. The building is designed to work around a bridge and Snøhetta describes how it “will rise up in a wing-like form to either side of the bridge, acting as a gateway to Portland.” I imagine a sea bird soaring above the satiated locals.

Nathan McRae, Project Director, answered the following

VH: What were the essential key elements for the James Beard Public Market Project?

Nathan McRae: The “Flying Carpet” of the inhabitable green roof splits and folds, forming large clerestories which naturally light the market below and allow the upper level of the market to access the rooftop, where large occupiable terraces afford views of the waterfront park, the Willamette River, and Mt. Hood in the distance. Soaring ceilings clad in natural wood are supported by exposed structural steel columns and trusses, reminiscent of the neighboring bridges.

At the ground level, large doors open up along the entire market façade to a widened sidewalk, a permeability which allows for goods and seating along the edge of the building. Once inside, vendors are arranged along a varied and meandering path which leads to dedicated seating areas and to the outdoor market beyond. The outdoor market is also accessible by a new pedestrian street running along the side of the market halls, allowing pedestrian access from all sides of the new market. The once-inaccessible and underutilized site is transformed into a lively and active asset to the city, connecting downtown to the waterfront, and providing a rich and healthy resource for the community.

VH: How does this market incorporate the purposes of traditional public markets?

NM: If the Greek Agora was the people’s gathering and assembly place of the city, so can the James Beard Public Market be the gateway to, and focal point of Portland, a market that uniquely could only exist in Portland, specific to the place and of the people, but with the potential to be the heart of the city in much the same way as the Agora.

While the Greeks would visit the market for sustenance and shoes, equally they would go to meet and socialize with their friends and business partners. While the James Beard Public Market will not necessarily be the equivalent to the Agora in Athens in this respect, it is envisioned as a place of community, of familiarity, of family, and in a sense, of inevitability.

VH: One huge physical challenge for the site was that it was divided by a bridge and vehicle ramps. How have you resolved this?

NM: Located on the Willamette River, not far from the waterfront location of the original Portland Public Market, the spectacular site straddles an iconic drawbridge, sits adjacent to a waterfront park, and brings with it a host of unique challenges. Currently, the Morrison Street Bridge and automobile ramps slice the site into two symmetrical halves, barring pedestrian access from three sides. Two broad moves are proposed—the straightening of the Morrison Bridge ramps and the introduction of a pedestrian through-road along the western edge of the market in order to increase the overall buildable site area, and make the new market accessible and safe for pedestrians from all four sides.

The site, bisected by the bridge, became a primary driver of the design. By embracing the roadway rather than fighting it, the market becomes a gateway to the city, and a dynamic platform from which to engage and view the city, the bridge, the park, the river, and the mountains beyond.

VH: Can you speak to how the roof will enhance this project?

NM: The inhabitable green roof functions on many levels—stormwater management, rooftop gardening, acoustic buffer, and as a beautiful occupied terrace spilling out from the mezzanines. On a larger scale, the roof lifts to either end, creating double height spaces within the market and a distinctive presence for the market in the foreground of the city.

These three Snøhetta projects on the West Coast have three different purposes. What do they have in common?

Nic Rader explained: “All of these projects require an integration of multiple design disciplines and provide opportunities for very innovative design solutions. We do our best work with tough parameters that require digging deep and asking lots of questions, and these projects definitely allow this. The brand is really in our transdisciplinary discovery and design process. If it looks like something we’ve never done before, then it’s probably ours.”

These three projects run the gamut: public and private, indoor and outdoor, new construction, renovations, and green spaces. But no matter what the challenge, one cannot help but be impressed by the results. I for one cannot wait to see the next gift they will bestow upon our country.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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