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Oslo Opera architects Snøhetta have completed some beautiful projects, most recently the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre Pavilion. Robert Greenwood of Snøhetta talks with Anne-Sophie Redisch about the physical landscape, culture, and people of Oslo.

Robert Greenwood

Greenwood: Snøhetta’s philosophy is to maintain a strong relationship between landscape and architecture. The Opera House is a good example, shaped like an ice floe gradually tapering into the waters of the Oslo fjord.

Oryx:Do you always integrate your projects into the landscape?

Greenwood: I think you can see the landscape in all our projects. Sometimes, our buildings are actually more landscape than buildings.

Oryx:Robert, you’re British and have lived here many years. What is it about Oslo that inspires you?

Greenwood: The connection across the North Sea, between Norway and England where I come from, is strong. Yet I still find Norway exotic: the mountains, the landscape, the people. I think that’s part of the reason I came here. It’s a very small country, very open to new ideas and doing things in a different way, which sometimes makes it easier to get things done more quickly.

Oryx:Norway is a very open and egalitarian society. Do you think architecture influences how the people interact with each other?

Hotel Brosundet

Greenwood: Yes, I think it does matter, in the way we’ve formed our society, in how things work. There has never really been an aristocracy here. Social democratic traditions are very strong and everyone’s voice is important. The cultural backdrop of Norway influences how we work and that again affects our buildings.
There’s a level playing field. Everyone is involved in the decision-making process and no-one is more important than others. The buildings we create are very much formed by the processes we go through. Even our name symbolises not a person, but a mountain – reaching up to the sky [Snøhetta is the name of a mountain in central Norway]. I think that’s quite significant. The name carries the connection to where we come from, and to the landscape.

Oryx:Snøhetta is unmistakably Norwegian, yet very international. From the very beginning, the staff were multi-national. Also, you work in numerous countries around the world, most notably in the Americas and the Middle East. Would you say you’re adding a little touch of Norway to your projects abroad and vice versa?

VM Pavilion, Oslo

Greenwood: Being out in the world is very natural to us. We have an international team, yet we have very firm Norwegian roots. That said,
it’s important to relate to the environment of where we’re working. For us, it’s important that every project is unique. There is no typical Snøhetta building. Every project is about the landscape, the culture, and the people where we are. This means not only the people who will use the buildings, the ones who will walk through them – but also the client and the ones working on them, all those who help create them.

Oryx:I’m Norwegian and I feel curiously at home in the Arabian deserts. The climate is the complete opposite, yet there’s something about the landscape: the scorching heat of the desert and the unrelenting cold of the Arctic tundra. Both landscapes are rugged and extreme, and both are so captivating and beautiful. You have projects both in Norway and on the Arabian Peninsula. Do you see similarities?

Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre Pavilion

Greenwood: I like this question, it strikes a chord with me. I also see a clear analogy between the landscapes and the climates. Being out in the desert is not that different from being out in the mountains. In the desert, for four months of the year, it’s too hot to be outside. Here, for four months of the year, it’s too cold to be outside. The snow and the sand are both harsh, very black-and-white climates.

Oryx:Traditionally, Oslo hasn’t had the grand, monumental buildings we find in other European capitals, other Nordic capitals even. One could perhaps say Norwegians used to care more about nature and less about monuments?

Oslo Opera House

Greenwood: The bigger cities – London, Paris, etc – have monuments to an urban past. Most people here aren’t from Oslo, they have come from the country. The iconic parts of Oslo are very different from those in other cities. Rather than grand buildings to past rulers, here it’s about the ski jump, the woods, the countryside. In Oslo, it’s all about the people, who we are. Monuments don’t have to be symbols of power, something to just look at. The public demand relevant and interactive buildings. People want to be part of the space. The Opera House is an interesting example of that.

Oryx:Yes, it is. Thirty years ago, one might be forgiven for thinking the city was deserted, a ghost town almost on a Sunday. Everyone would be out in the forest, skiing or hiking. Today, locals are as likely to walk on the roof of the Opera House. During your years here, have you seen a shift in interests and attitudes?

Greenwood: Very much so. When I first arrived in Oslo, nothing was open and the city centre was nearly empty on Sundays. That’s changing. We are becoming more urban in how we relate to our surroundings. The Opera House is very interesting. Here in Norway, there’s a mistrust of elitist institutions. Ten years ago, people weren’t concerned with opera. But now, it’s no longer an elitist thing. Oslo Opera House belongs to the people – you can jump on it, take a walk on it, it’s yours. The Opera House has become part of society, part of everybody’s ownership.

Oslo, Norway
Distance: 4,964km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 30 minutes
Frequency: Daily

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