Snøhetta designs America

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

Photo: Snøhetta / Doug and Wolf The Far Rockaway Library, scheduled for completion next year, will replace the library’s outgrown building with a fittingly beautiful translucent structure combining private and public space.

Photo: Snøhetta / Doug and Wolf
The Far Rockaway Library, scheduled for completion next year, will replace the library’s outgrown building with a fittingly beautiful translucent structure combining private and public space.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The library in Alexandria, Oslo’s Opera House, and the Le Monde Headquarters are just a few of the impressive structures worldwide that owe their creation to the Norwegian-born architectural firm Snøhetta. They have now opened an office in New York and a studio in San Francisco and their projects on both U.S. coasts are flourishing.

Below are four projects in New York, both completed and in process. Through their various purposes, materials, and designs, you can see the depth and breadth of Snøhetta’s work. Special thanks to Kelly Tigeria from Snøhetta for her help with this story.

National September 11th Memorial Museum & Pavilion
This is arguably the most important and sensitive site in New York City, as it is on the ground that once supported the former World Trade Center, where so many innocents lost their lives. Snøhetta was awarded the honor of designing and constructing the Memorial Museum and Pavilion, the only building on the Memorial Plaza.

The soaring light-filled space was dedicated by President Obama in 2014. Especially impressive are the two massive metal beams surging upward. The façade is a wonderful play between dark and light.

This project went through many incarnations, as the parameters constantly changed. As you can imagine, there were many competing passions about what would be appropriate. Snøhetta had to have a flexible attitude through the cumbersome process that was compounded by this site’s monumental significance.

I spoke to Aaron Dorf, Project Director, about the process.

Photo: Jeff Goldberg / Etsos The most striking feature of the September 11th Memorial is the pair of steel beams from the original towers. Much of the design work centered around them.

Photo: Jeff Goldberg / Etsos
The most striking feature of the September 11th Memorial is the pair of steel beams from the original towers. Much of the design work centered around them.

Victoria Hofmo: What was the biggest challenge in designing The National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion?

Aaron Dorf: While the pavilion is a building that sits over three independent structures, the technical challenges were significant, but in the end not the most difficult part of the project. Ultimately, all of the needs and outside interests influencing the project over ten years were far greater than the forces exerted on site. These interests transformed the project repeatedly, and created a number of hurdles from approvals through construction logistics that few, if any, other projects have to deal with in concert.

VH: How many incarnations did this project go through?

AD: We went through about eight largely different projects in early planning, and probably 11 or 12 total, when you consider the multiple versions of the final pavilion, just between the schematic design and construction documents phases of development.

VH: Was there anything Snøhetta had hoped to include that was eliminated?

AD: Every project has elements that are lost or removed along the way, and this one was no different. We lost some spatial qualities, details, and finishes that we’d worked hard for, but you adapt to the changing ground and keep going. In the end, there is no real truth other than the final product.

VH: Were there any elements that evolved during the process that were not in the original design?

AD: Everything, in a word. The competition that we originally won was for a totally different project, on the memorial but not formally connected to it at all. Once our project was incorporated into the memorial, the building’s content and location changed pretty rapidly. Visitor comfort and security were the only two functional needs that remained substantial in all versions, and everything else was musical chairs.

VH: Are the oxidized beams in the building’s interior from the World Trade Center?

AD: Yes. Those are two steel columns from the lobby and mezzanine of the original towers that anchored the buildings to bedrock. They were part of a large amount of salvaged steel from the original buildings, which had been stored in a local airplane hangar for many years. Once the curatorial team selected this particular pair, we had to get them three-dimensionally scanned in place, digitally processed to reduce the incredible amount of information the scan produced, and then we worked with our engineers to rebuild and ultimately restructure them since they were no longer completely straight after collapse. The pavilion atrium had very little available space, and quite a lot to do, so it was a delicate insertion that had to take into account support locations, views, and construction sequence. [The beams] actually went in before most of the building, whereas many of the larger artifacts in the below-grade museum were dropped into place quite late, through an opening that was left open in the plaza just prior to paving installation.

Far Rockaway Library
A low-lying Queens community where one can smell the sea, Far Rockaway suffered greatly during Hurricane Sandy. The library served as a place of relief for the community during that difficult time, and the new library will be double the size of the original and continue to serve as a crucial community center. This inventive design has an additional and very ambitious purpose—to spur revitalization of the area.

New York is not the easiest place in which to construct, but that has not deterred Snøhetta from going beyond the required regulations. In this project, they are pursuing LEED Silver Certification and have made sure that the building’s elevation rises above the flood zone criteria set by FEMA.

From the street corner it intersects, a peak forms, reminding me of a Scandinavian boat house. A nice touch is the building’s skin, which is made of glass in a hue that replicates the “sky along the coast.” Expected completion is 2016.

Nathan McRae, Project Director, answered the following.

VH: The Far Rockaway Library Project has a very interesting skin. Could you speak about it and why it was chosen?

Nathan McRae: The volume and façade of the building is meant to be in calm contrast to the varied and cluttered context, setting itself apart as a civic center. The glass façade is fritted with a gradient of color reminiscent of the sky off of the coast of Long Island, and texture and scale is incorporated by means of a script-based artwork integrated in the frit pattern. Thus, multiple scales are introduced to the simple wrapper of the building, lending varied readings and understandings of the building depending on the distance of the vantage point.

VH: This project had to incorporate a lot of city zoning stipulations, Local Law 86, and the new FEMA Flood Guidelines. You were also seeking the LEED Silver Certification. How did these affect the library’s design?

NM: The building employs a myriad of sustainable measures, with a focus on a high performance envelope and an extensive use of daylighting. While many of the measures certainly affect the design, they are not necessarily visible. The exterior envelope is one location where the performance is integral to the design—the frit pattern on the glass forms a gradient of opacity in response to desired levels of daylight penetration, and in order to manage solar gain.

VH: Can you describe the Percent for Art Project that is being created for the library?

NM: One art project incorporated into the new library is a collaboration with the painter José Parlá on the façade, where we’re providing scaled building elevations over which Jose will be creating a custom artwork. This will then be scanned at high resolution and digitally integrated with the gradient of color and frit pattern that will wrap the building.

Westchester Square Library
Snøhetta was chosen to build a new Westchester Square Public Library in the Bronx. It will replace the Huntington Free Library Annex, a brick building that once housed the Heye Foundation’s collection of American Indian art. Next door is the landmarked Huntington Free Library, built in 1892, created in a Victorian Gothic style that includes a snazzy turret. The Snøhetta design will be modernist and made of glass. On July 14 this project was given an Excellence in Design Award from the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. Expected completion is 2017.

Snøhetta could not speak to the media about this project at this time. Nothing nefarious—it is still a work in progress. The questions I would have posed and ones that readers may wish to consider are: Why did Snøhetta choose to design a modernist building to abut the 1890s Huntington Library? How do the two buildings speak to each other?

Photo: Snøhetta The Times Square Redesign aims to improve flow for pedestrians, cyclists, and car traffic alike.

Photo: Snøhetta
The Times Square Redesign aims to improve flow for pedestrians, cyclists, and car traffic alike.

Times Square
Snøhetta has been chosen to make the public space known as “The Bowtie,” in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Times Square, more accessible to the public. This project includes 10 very long granite benches. Snøhetta always incorporates form with function and this project is no exception as it included upgrading the area’s infrastructure, including drainage. Expected completion is 2015.

Claire Fellman, Director and Landscape Architect, answered the following.

VH: What is the Times Square Reconstruction’s goal?
Claire Fellman: There are three key goals for the reconstruction project: to upgrade crucial utility infrastructure, provide event infrastructure for new and expanded public events, and make permanent improvements to the public realm for pedestrians. Our goal is to improve the quality and atmosphere of this historic space for both tourists and locals, for pedestrians and bicyclists, to retain its “edge” while refining its floor.

VH: Light and reflection seem to be integral to many Snøhetta designs. In this case nickel-sized discs have been in the pavement, a very subtle but interesting detail that will reflect the neon of Times Square. Can you speak about Snøhetta’s sensitivity to these types of details?

CF: The design for the pavement in Times Square is intended to serve as a strong counterpoint to the frenetic energy of the signs above. Using a dark precast concrete material studded with stainless steel pucks reminiscent of the marquee lights of the “Great White Way” (as Times Square was once known), Snøhetta intends to create an anchor for the space, that serves as a backdrop for the spectacle above. Ephemeral conditions of light and reflection often connect Snøhetta’s designs to the unique and unpredictable qualities of each site.

VH: What do the four Snøhetta Projects in New York have in common?

CF: Each project is a specific response to its context and a set of conditions—social, environmental, economic, etc.—that affect each site.

As you can see, it is a very exciting time in New York with Snøhetta as part of the equation. Don’t fret, West Coast, Snøhetta has some amazing projects coming your way as well. You can read about three of them in the article that follows.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.