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SNØHETTA: A NORTHERN LIGHT

AGENDA

With the exception of Niels Torp and Sverre Fehn, architectural talent has not been a major Norwegian export. The Beatles best summed up the country's image with: 'Isn't it good?

Norwegian Wood.' But one bright light piercing the 24-hour darkness is Oslo-based practice Snøhetta, which can rightly claim to have cultivated an international name.

Founded by Kjetil Thorsen (pictured above) and American Craig Dykers, the firm's reputation has ballooned following a number of key competition wins to design significant cultural buildings.

The then-unknown practice pulled off its fi rst coup back in 1989 when it won the contest to design the huge new library in Alexandria, Egypt.

It was a job that took 13 years to complete, but it put Snøhetta on the map. As work continued in North Africa the firm landed other major wins, including the new cultural building in the World Trade Center redevelopment.

Other major successes were the Bergen National Academy of the Arts, Oslo Opera House and the £29 million Turner Contemporary centre in Margate, Snøhetta's only UK scheme to date.

Despite these impressive highs, Thorsen acknowledges that Norway's architectural scene as a whole is still underachieving and, where it flourishes, remains underpublicised. This lack of coverage is one of the reasons why Thorsen - and Queen Sonja of Norway - are currently in this country.

'There is a preconception of Norwegian architecture that we design small wooden houses tied down to the landscape, ' Thorsen said.

'There may be truth in that. But things are changing.' Unfortunately the lame exhibition at Portland Place 'showcasing' the country's up-and-coming hotshots does little to address this.

Even Thorsen appears unimpressed by the sad eight-board display.

However, he is a cheerful chap and, when he smiles, bears an uncanny resemblance to David Brent from the television comedy The Office.

That's where the similarities end. The 47 year old, who was educated in Graz, Austria, is warm and self-aware and has no qualms about admitting that Norway, historically, has not mirrored the success of its Scandinavian neighbours on the world stage.

He said: 'Finland has had more media coverage because it has had the better architects.

It is only right and reasonable that Finnish designers have been made more famous.

'But Finland has always made a conscious choice when it comes to architecture.

Norway is a generation behind.' Nevertheless, Thorsen feels his 68-strong practice is well placed to change that. The firm's ethos of entering competition after competition continues to get it noticed.

Take the office's everchanging World Trade Center scheme - a key cultural building on the globe's most scrutinised site.

Less than a month ago it was announced that the two cultural elements of the scheme, the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center, would be replaced with something else. Snøhetta's New York office is now engaged in 'reprogramming' and 'redesigning', yet one of the overriding design drivers, the centre's link to the parkland around it, is sure to remain.

The practice's typically Nordic connection with nature runs through all its work. Even the name 'Snøhetta' comes from a large snow-capped peak in central Norway that staff from the multi-disciplinary practice visit without fail every year.

For Thorsen, who was brought up on the island of Karmøy, water is also a major element in many of the designs.

'I'm fascinated by harbour cities around the world, ' he said.

'Trieste, New York, Oslo, Alexandria and Margate.' The Kent scheme has been a particular favourite, especially because the practice won the job despite bending the rules.

According to the brief, the new Turner Contemporary gallery was to be built on the edge of the town. Snøhetta thought this would make the building anonymous.

The firm devised a split-site scheme with a sail-like structure sprouting out of the seabed.

'To win in England you have to break all the rules, ' Thorsen said.

Again, the form of the main beach-based building takes its cue from nature.

He said: 'Where the shape comes from we don't know.

However, everyone would say it comes from the water.' Working in the sea has brought its own problems and a prototype obelisk which was shipped in from Belfast and anchored to the site was washed away early in the year.

The ever-optimistic Thorsen says he was 'glad it happened' and that the firm will learn from the mistakes.

It appears Thorsen has fallen in love with Margate. He said: 'Margate is a fantastically melancholic place. It has a very distinct beauty. Marseille has similar atmospheres. Things that are falling apart are beautiful.' Presumably he didn't mean the obelisk.

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