“The best time to learn a language is when you’re strapped into a seat,” says Craig Dykers, as if he’s offering a hot stock tip. “You can’t get out!” The founding partner of the architecture firm Snøhetta has spent plenty of time strapped into airplane seats, shuttling between headquarters in New York and Oslo and its far-flung projects. Recently, Dykers, who lives in Brooklyn, has been improving his Chinese, which he taught himself years ago, mainly through pinyin books. (Fluent in Norweign, he also speaks some German, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic.) “You see the character, then the pinyin version, and then the English word, and putting all three together you learn the language,” he says. “It was really fun.”
Such incessant curiosity and laser focus has helped propel Dykers on a remarkable trajectory. At just age 28, he and a ragtag group of seven architect friends from Norway and the U.S. entered an anonymous competition to design the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt; their submission beat out 527 others. His colleagues on the project included Kjetil Thorsen, Snøhetta’s other founding partner, and Elaine Molinar, who heads the New York office and is also Dyker’s wife.
Instead of affixing their own names to their firm, Dyker and Thorsen borrowed the name of a mountain in central Norway, Snøhetta, that in Norse mythology is the location of Valhalla. (Every year, the whole team visits and climbs it.) And in place of the auteur style favored by so many high-profile firms, Snøhetta’s approach is nonhierarchical and collectivist, with architects, landscape architects, interior architects, and graphic designers collaborating together. In the middle of his open-plan office in New York’s Financial District, Dykers sits at a workstation that looks just like everyone else’s.
Over the past 30 years, this philosophy has resulted in wildly varied visionary architecture, landscape design, interior architecture, and product design, including the Oslo Opera House, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum Pavilion in New York, an extension of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a redesign of the Norwegian kroner banknotes. “I’m a strong proponent of breaking down barriers,” Dykers says. “We should move freely across the borders of landscape, architecture, and interiors without a passport.”
You spent most of your childhood in Germany, where your father was in the U.S. Army. How did being a child of the military shape you?
My father was a sergeant major who spent most of his career in very high-pressure situations, mostly in triage. He was in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. From him, I learned how to work well under pressure, how to be logistical and strategic. But he was also a very sensitive person—very kind and cultured—so I saw those things as being interrelated, not separated. My mother was creative. As a child, she was an actor on stage, and when I was growing up, she liked to make clothes and worked in a sewing shop. Both she and my father were quite interested in art and had very contemporary tastes.
Were you always attracted to art or architecture?
I was naturally quite good at drawing. I didn’t take classes—I could somehow just draw. [During college at the University of Texas] I called my father and told him I had decided to be an artist. He was silent on the phone and then he said, “You’re not going to get any help from me,” and hung up. When I called him back a week later, I asked him, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Well, son, a real artist would never call up their father and ask them how he feels about them wanting to be an artist. They would just do it.”
And that helped you pivot toward architecture?
He knew I loved science as well as art. He said, “Architecture is a wonderful combination of art and science, and I think you would really flourish in that world. Besides, an architect would probably call up their father and tell them they wanted to be an architect.”
Snøhetta is known for its very egalitarian way of operating. You are a founding partner, but you don’t sit in a corner office. Why is that?
Many designers like myself think of themselves as politically and socially progressive. But when you walk into their studios, they’re as conservative and hierarchical as the Vatican! We try extremely hard to practice what we preach and break down hierarchies. It’s not that we’re radical socialists or don’t have any structure, but we’re socially conscious.
How has this philosophy influenced the physical design of this office?
We try to create situations where people can talk with one another easily. So, for instance, we don’t have a receptionist when you walk in. You enter straight into the kitchen and you have to make your own way around the studio.
The firm now has more than 240 staff members spread over two headquarters and five satellite offices. Do you personally need to sign off on every project?
I don’t have to be heavily involved with every project. Because Snøhetta is not reliant on one individual or a couple of individuals, each office can be self-sustaining. The clients are happy because we have an ethos that permeates everybody’s spirit. People create things that are an extension of how we think. So there’s no signature style, but you know the result will represent a certain way of thinking about life.
Let’s talk about your creative process. Do you keep a notebook or take photos?
I do a lot of drawing and sketching all the time. But I prefer not to use a sketchbook, which makes [the drawings] too precious and too chronological somehow. I’ll sketch my ideas on scraps of paper, which I leave everywhere.
Snøhetta has a long history of working with artists—you’ve collaborated with José Parlá and Olafur Eliasson, who created an installation for the Oslo Opera House. Why is working with artists important to the practice?
Artists really do have a different state of mind from architects. For an artist, their work is almost like a living organism that bleeds or gets sick if you touch it, whereas an architect has to be flexible and dynamic.
Do you still make art?
I do create some rather large works at home, which some people would call art. I work in ink, acrylic, and acrylic pens—and I’m fixated on the color blue. But I’ve never shown the works, except to my friends. I allow the art to be just my personal world and not a public world. I think it allows my architecture to grow.
What do you look for when hiring new talent?
On top of the list is whether they work well with others. We’ve had some people applying here who are incredibly talented and skillful, but hiring them would be like letting loose tear gas in the office. It wouldn’t function with our group dynamic.
Do you think architecture schools are adequately preparing future architects?
I would say that architecture schools are overly focused on abstract theory and individuality. They allow conceptual thinking to run independent from any other type of thinking. And they don’t teach risk—in fact, they teach students how to avoid risk. Of course, the United States has a very litigious society. But you cannot make great things without understanding risk.
Snøhetta recently celebrated its 30th anniversary—it’s not a young company anymore. How do you keep the creativity fresh and avoid the trap of repeating past successes?
We look for clients that drive us in new directions. We work in collaborative groups and we have young people who add fresh blood. But I think what’s most important is you have to open your door to the world. The world is anything but static—it’s nebulous, irrational, and turbulent. And as soon as you put your sensibilities into a space that’s out of your control, your work starts to get more dynamic. So work on projects that you’re not totally in control of, and accept the fact that though they might not be the most representative architectonic structures in the universe, they have a tremendous impact on a great many people.
What do you see as pressing issues for the firm right now?
We are now dealing with things like climate abuse—I call it climate abuse now, rather than climate change. Many architects talk about dealing with climate change and doing the best they can. But we are trying to tackle it head on, pushing projects in more sensitive directions in terms of materiality, how we build, and what the effects are after they’re built. We take a lot of risks and sometimes get slapped in the face for it, but I’d prefer to get slapped than avoid the world around me.
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.