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When an Anthropologist Walks into the Office

Craig Dykers in conversation with inter·punct

Craig Dykers is one of the founding partners of Norwegian design firm Snøhetta, and has won several high profile international awards over the course of his career.  

For additional information and to view Craig’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: Your firm philosophy states, “Architecture cannot be contained simply by rules of order; instead it must accommodate the restless mind of human society.” This suggests that your process allows for a certain number of rules for disorder, for the unknowable or immeasurable. How does one go about designing with the abnormal as an important initiator of decision-making?

CD: I think the use of the word “normal” is challenging. One has to allow for intuitive or instinctual discussions in a process. Things may not feel as though they fit or are normal at first but they are able to grow as the project grows. Sometimes things and people don’t follow the rules; as much as we like to think we are perfect, people are not. Accommodating this imperfection architecturally is very important. A single person or an idealized design process won’t commit to the intuitive. To accommodate this in our office, we bring people together: people with different backgrounds, different interests, different educations and different cultural origins. This opens a door to the unknown. If you were working on your own, only listening to yourself, your own intuition creates your frame of order. It only begins to lack order when you’re working with someone else’s intuition. All of us have within us drivers that make us who we are, and our intuition tends to be in response to those drivers.

i·p: How do you coordinate the different stakeholders and parties that are participating in this mutual exchange of intuitions?

CD: One of the most important factors in our process is the use of language. Language is a key factor in a creative process. As architects, we’ve overlooked the use of language in our work; we tend to rely on graphic identity for creating language. Graphics are powerful but they are, ultimately, only visual. Sound and the use of narrative, storytelling, and language that connects people can provide a collective focus to allow a concept to be understood on different levels. We must find means to allow our ideas to be verbally expressed to a wide range of people with different backgrounds, some of whom don’t necessarily understand what architecture is. The second important factor is a strong but flexible concept, which becomes part of that core discussion. We need to be sure that our basic ideas about a building can be manipulated without losing the power of that concept – you have to give up some power in order to gain power. The concept grows in strength if you’re able to release some aspects of the discussion to a wider group of people. The idea behind the Alexandria Library is a good example of this. It has a clear and pure form at a large scale, but multiple aspects of the core idea can be altered: the functional arrangement, the modulation of the roof, and the description of the entry sequence. Yet it still never misses its fundamental quality, whatever changes occur.

In our office we talk a great deal before we make things. We often say in the office, “The person who draws the first line has the most power.” Because of this, we try to push that point of drawing the first line further and further back until we have all discussed the conceptual framework of what we are trying to achieve before we start to put it into something. By the time we get to that object or thing, a response to program and site, and the connection to culture and social conditions, everyone has a similar frame of mind. Site exists without us, program is our interpretation of how that site can be manipulated for us, and our social lives are the invisible things that allow us to exist in a new framework or architectural condition at that place.

i·p: You mentioned anthropology and human behavior – I was wondering if you could speak to how exactly that plays a role in your process, because at the same time you’re dealing with a more abstract concept about the site and program, the bigger picture?

CD: We’re not dealing with an abstract concept, because the concept is derived from the human condition. “Abstract,” to me, means what’s left after you rip everything away. To start with something that’s already preripped, pre-torn, seems odd. The anthropological issues are driven by suggesting that human beings have a nature, and that nature connects all of us, at some level, into a uniform species. We tend to think that we’re above all that, that we’re these perfect creatures that are somehow without a beginning and without an end. We like to think that we’re not domesticated, even though our entire lives are spent within a purely domesticated environment. But if you can scratch all of those features away that cloak who you are, it starts to create interesting conversations.

I’ll talk a little bit about it tonight at the lecture, but it’s interesting to me that we rarely talk about things like sexual nature in architecture, because it’s embarrassing, we never talk about doubt, in architecture, because it makes us feel unimportant, we never talk about nuance, we never suggest in architecture that we can be submissive or subservient – it’s against the nature of what it means to be an architect but I feel that there’s great power in subservience, great power in having doubt, power in self-reflection, in being embarrassed at how silly you look when you’re naked, ‘cause we do look kind of silly, most of us anyway; I do. [Laughs] And why can’t our buildings relate to that?

My friend Michael Benedikt and I recently had a conversation on the subject of this challenge. As a contemporary architect, if you make a window like one of these [points to window behind him], you’d probably be shot dead; windows are not for modern architects. We make slots and slits and any other thing besides a window so that all notions of looking through something, the divisions between inside and out, are somehow obliterated. The same is true with doors. Look at the door into this room [door to conference room]: everything’s been done to make the door just disappear, because making an actual door would mean you’re old-fashioned. A roof that accommodates the climate by being pointed or ridged suggests that, as an architect, you’re not powerful enough to control the weather, so you must be subservient to the snow and make this shape that serves it. Making a flat roof suggests that you’re so powerful you don’t even need to deal with the weather. And the colors, like black and other neutral colors that architects wear or use in their work, their use tends to be yet another level of disassociation with reality. At some time in the near future, unless we start to come to terms with human nature, we will have disassociated ourselves from everything. We will be even more depressed and angrier at one another, and more alien to the landscape around us.

i·p: So I guess you see the abstraction of canonical Modernism as a negative expression of the power of the architect?

CD: Yes, but it’s not that I don’t like it. I mean I’m a modernist. I do plenty of stuff where I don’t want windows and doors and roofs. I think you can still have those discussions and not leave intellectual or academic life behind. But I do believe that the further we take ourselves, even in canonical Modernism, away from physical, direct physical interaction with space and structures, this will lead to the death of modernism. I like modernism, or at least contemporary design, enough that I don’t want it to die.

i·p: With a modern and specifically global practice, how do you access the anthropological life of people in different cultures?

CD: We try as much as possible to be a part of places where we’re working. We try to absorb, as an outsider, what a certain place means, visiting places where projects are set. You can never replace the culture inside of yourself, but you are able, with fresh eyes and a critical appraisal, to look at things in ways that those that live within the context might not see. You may be right, you may be wrong, but to be able to bring that to the table is interesting – and it’s important that you’re bringing it to people actually interacting with the place, hearing how they feel about what you do and reacting to it. I think, then, you have a way of creating dialogue between cultures.

Actually, culture may be one of the worst attributes we have assimilated as human beings; its definition implies segregation and the division of peoples. Culture is really just a collection of habits that segregates you from your neighbors, and that’s the really bad side of human nature. The good side of culture is, of course, that it allows you to express your attitudes toward life and what important values you keep.

i·p: I think what’s interesting is that rather than trying to obliterate those differences by projecting an ordered universality, you’re extracting from them a universality that’s already there.

CD: I would say that’s fairly accurate. There are so many other arts that understand this better than architecture: music, literature and the dramatic arts for instance.

i·p: Do you also incorporate anthropologists or other specialists into your office?

CD: We always invite tangential insight into projects, when we can afford it. We’ll involve a playwright or a dancer or an artist We had a great artist working with light come in to talk to us about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Any kind of tangential insight always serves us well when we can get it. The results are often less powerful when we don’t.

i·p: Caught up in the human experience you talk about is the conflict between the individual and the collective. Its resolution seems to be a key part in the way you work. How does that filter into your designs?

CD: A common expression in our office is “singular in the plural,” meaning you are part of an overall group with shared goals, but you never lose your singular identity within that group. As human beings, we tend to gravitate towards ownership, whether it’s about owning our thoughts or owning acquired property. Architecture often creates space that is all about acquiring property of some kind. I find that a challenge, because I think the notion of ownership has grown more powerful throughout time. The definition of what we call space has become privatized in our minds. I think that’s a problem.

I recall Christian Norberg-Schultz once talked about some of the first structures made by humans that were really quite amazing. The earliest structures that archaeologists hypothesize consisted of a post hole next to a rock. If there wasn’t a cave or a tree you could stand under and you needed security and a place to get out of the elements, the first thing you do, according to this narrative, is to find something that’s not going anywhere, like a big rock. If it’s windy or stormy, you need some solidity, some anchor that you take on. The problem with such immovable objects is they’re not nice places to be, and they’re usually something you can’t actually live under, in, or next to without adding anything extra. It is then necessary to find lightweight, temporary things, like twigs or logs, and drag these over to the big rock, and lean them against it. Then it is possible to sleep underneath something, occupying the space between the permanent and the temporary. We join those two worlds. I find that really interesting. Today we don’t often appreciate those beginnings. Temporariness is considered impure, or not worthy of close care; we want all things to be permanent. Classically engaged architecture is one of the biggest proponents of permanence, and there’s beauty in permanence, but we’ve lost sight of that zone between what’s temporary and what’s permanent. Even the great classicists noticed this challenge; they carved acanthus leaves on the tops of columns made out of stone. Leaves would die and disappear, but somehow they had to be made permanent.

i·p: And yet at the same time the rate buildings are alive and then destroyed today seems so contradictory to that.

CP: When we look at buildings of the past that are with us today, we often sense how great they are. The fact is that all the crap buildings of the past have fallen down or been torn down, and we’re only left with the good stuff. And so the same is potentially true about our time; centuries from now only the really good things will be left and everyone will think how amazing we were. You have to live through it, I guess.

i·p: A related topic is the privatization of public space, particularly in American and globalizing culture. Starbucks and other venues act as replacements for the traditional town square, when actually they’re mediated spaces designed to sell people things. A lot of your work deals with gestures that are hugely public, like the Alexandria Library, the Oslo Opera House, etc. How do you position your ability to carve out public space in the contemporary environment?

CD: First of all, public space needs to be physical. If it doesn’t accommodate the physical dimensions of your body and how you interact with other people, and gravity, it tends to be less interesting. I think that a sense of physicality is more powerful than attempts to design or impose social conditions in occupied places. This is because I think social conditions cannot easily be defined. What’s been a failure in public space in the last century or so is the desire to say, “This space is for this social function,” to preordain social conditions. I think that social engagement occurs in such a wide variety of ways that you can’t model it. We try to avoid the pitfalls of bringing similar yet disconnected typologies together. Secondly, I would say is that you need to make space a little bit dangerous, which is harder to do because of litigation. I think we should be tested by our public space. We don’t want to make things where people get hurt, but you need to challenge people when they move. Going back to the disassociation of windows and doors, we’re actually taking people further and further away from actually having to interact directly with their space: temperature is brought to a medium average, lighting is brought to an average, and safety and comfort are brought to a common denominator. It would be great if some of our spaces challenged us physically so that we don’t have to be comfortable all the time.

i·p: Part of this challenge is a kind of non-linguistic communication or interaction between people and buildings perhaps? Or maybe it’s a more abstracted linguistic sense, because like the slope at the Opera House, it’s not a conventional, sign-element that people recognize and read, but it’s a physical thing that invites interaction.

CD: In the Opera House’s case, one of the things we talked about was that most people are drawn to an overlook. Obviously there are many people who are afraid of heights. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t drawn, just fearful of how to get there. We made the Opera easier for people who are afraid of heights: we made large rails, we often cut the view away of how high you are as you’re moving; the elements that normally cue that fear are taken away. It’s not too high, where you feel like you’re in a godlike position and not too low where you feel like things are being taken away from you, but exactly in that median plane where you feel like you’re attached to the ground, yet slightly higher. It’s a natural thing; you don’t need a sign. It just happens, but if you don’t take care of everything along the way it doesn’t. There’s a sensitivity to it. And you don’t get that sensitivity unless you talk to other people. Do they have alcohol on this campus? I’d like to get a beer before my lecture…