“People are not distractions. Buildings are.”
Dykers discusses the Wolfe Center for the Arts
On a snowy night last week, a group of students and others got a glimpse into the mindset of Snøhetta, the architectural firm designing the University’s new Wolfe Center for the Arts. The center will be the first project Snøhetta will complete in the United States, before its 9/11 museum in New York City is open.
Craig Dykers, a principal and founding member of the Oslo, Norway-based company, visited campus to work with students in Jon Stevens’ architecture class and give a talk about the philosophy underlying the award-winning company’s work. Accompanying him were architects Vanessa Kassabian and Scott Melancon, both of whom worked on the Wolfe Center design.
Looking at slides of the company’s other projects, from the new opera house in Oslo to the library in Alexandria, Egypt, what is striking is that, while the buildings are audacious in their design, they are the complete opposite of the showy, “world’s tallest” or “world’s biggest” structures currently being put up in Asia and the Middle East—structures meant perhaps to flaunt the money and “just because we can” attitudes of their funders and builders but that have no relation to the surroundings or culture of the places they inhabit.
Snøhetta’s buildings, on the other hand, tend to almost nestle into their surroundings, taking their cue from the landscape and history of their site. In fact, Dykers said, “every project begins with our landscape architects,” who work closely with the structural group to determine the best position and shape of each building.
Snøhetta takes its name from a mountain in central Norway reputed to be the site of Valhalla, home of the valkyries, slain warriors who serve the god Odin. This “hall of the mountain king” represents for the architects the “power of landscape and architecture to coexist. They have equal power, and the power of place takes a prominent place in our designs,” Dykers said, adding that once a year, everyone in the company climbs the mountain.
Their buildings also tend to incorporate natural elements, from the hand-drawn and carved stone of the Alexandria library to the individually designed oak panels in the opera house, giving each an approachable, “human” feel.
Designing the Wolfe Center
When the Snøhetta team visited Bowling Green to get a feel for the setting, they looked at an aerial view of the campus and began thinking about how to blend an academic landscape with an agrarian one. The next step was to carry that basis into the future and connect it to the larger world—a reflection of the fact that many BGSU students are first-generation college students.
The team was also intrigued by the fact that no one was using the large lawn adjoining the site of the future building, where the former Saddlemire Student Service Building was located. The architects wanted to find a way to revive the area and make it a prominent spot for people to gather.
“The Wolfe Center is an important project for us on a number of levels,” Dykers said.
As in their design for the opera house, they were aware that “voyeurism is an important part of making a theater. People go as much to be seen as to see,” he said. They used expanses of glass to bring in natural light, and people will enter the Wolfe Center under a lifted, cantilevered wall that will provide “a picture window onto campus,” he explained.
Cost was, of course, a factor in the design. “Working with a limited budget, we realized that the least expensive building form is a box.” But, expanding on that concept, the architects “took the lid off the box” to create the major structure of the building. “Life is made up of both the intuitive and unexpected and the predictable, and architecture can reflect this duality,” he observed.
They also tried to retain some of the “spirit of Saddlemire,” he said. The orchestra pit will be in what was Saddlemire’s basement. The largest theater is also reminiscent of the past, being rounded but done in a contemporary style.
For a performance space, an unusual aspect of the center is that the “back-of-house” functions are much more prominent than is typical, Dykers said. Glass hallways give views into the scene and costume shops, for example, so people walking through can have a sense of the activities in the building.
Like Snøhetta’s other buildings, the Wolfe Center will tell a story about its inhabitants and its place. As Dykers said, “A story draws on relationships in the landscape of place and projects these relationships onto the landscape of our mind.”