Snøhetta Occupies the Edges

When Michelle Delk, ASLA, was young and too full of energy for a lengthy car ride, her parents would pull over at parks in northern Iowa to let her run around. She grew attached to one in particular: It had a huge boulder that was half in the park and half in the road, and she could scramble to the top and look down.

“The boulder literally interrupted the street,” said Delk, partner and discipline director for landscape architecture at the international, multi-disciplinary design firm Snøhetta. “If you’re driving along the street and someone’s coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop and wait, and then you had to drive around the rock. This was the beginning of my falling in love with unusual landscapes and the juxtaposition of elements within places.”

Delk shared half a dozen Snøhetta projects during a lecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design, and all of these offer a sense of the unusual — some form or sequence of a places that capture the imagination and create a new human experience.

At the Snøhetta-designed Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo (see video above), the landscape is a series of tilted white planes that envelop the architecture and allow for a continuous journey up from the water’s edge, to the terrace level that connects to downtown, to the peak of the opera’s roof.

“It’s not a building or a landscape; it’s in fact both,” Delk said. “People sometimes say to me about Snøhetta: ‘Oh I understand, you’re trying to make invisible, to blur the distinction between architecture and landscape.’ While this happens, it’s not what we set out to do. In fact, the edge — the place where architecture and landscape come together — is a very special place. It’s the place we want to occupy.”

People have come to see the landscape of the opera house as a major civic space. The opera and ballet now simulcast some events and use the sloped terrace as a viewing amphitheater, where often more people are watching the events outside than inside. And all of this activity happens on a landscape that was previously off limits. Through pre-construction remediation of toxic soils, this project became part of a broader Oslo vision to transform the industrialized waterfront for public use.

The Snøhetta design for the James Beard Public Market in Portland, Oregon, also seeks to reclaim a derelict landscape. Here the landscape is the challenging pinched space between the on and off ramps for the historic Morrison drawbridge. It’s a parking lot and partially closed to foot traffic on three sides, creating a gap between downtown and the Willamette River. Delk said the Portland residents who attended Snøhetta’s public meetings on the design concepts were eager to see the site become a vibrant local food hub and connect the river to downtown.

By folding back the on and off ramps, the Snøhetta design team found it would be possible to build an open and airy market on the unlikely site. “The market will dip under the bridge and become one connected space that you can come into and out of in multiple ways,” Delk said. “It becomes very transparent and connected to the city.”

James Beard Public Market: current condition at top, design renderings middle and bottom, Portland, Oregon / Snøhetta
James Beard Public Market: current condition at top, design renderings middle and bottom, Portland, Oregon / Snøhetta

Down the road in Oregon City, another Snøhetta design will reconnect people to the water. Willamette Falls is the second largest waterfall in North America by volume, yet, for 150 years, it’s been inaccessible because of the industry on its edges, most recently a paper mill. Snøhetta is developing the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, which will leverage the site’s unique multi-layered history, create new possibilities for future programming and development, and feature the unusual drama of the waterfall itself next to an almost crumbling post-industrial landscape.

“Careful restraint, and thinking about editing, framing, and episodic experience, is very relevant here. We don’t want to wipe out what is here, but we wish, through careful editing and removal of components, to create new places for people to inhabit,” Delk said. “We wish to think about the ephemeral qualities so inherently beautiful here, and how we can bring those qualities into a design that connect people to the history, water, and the essence of this place.”

Willamette Falls Riverwalk, design rendering / Snøhetta
Willamette Falls Riverwalk, design rendering / Snøhetta

Delk closed her lecture by playing a video someone had sent a colleague: It showed a man on a motorbike careening up and down the tilted landscape of the Oslo opera house, popping wheelies and gathering an audience until a security guard comes to shoo him off.

“I don’t think this gentleman cares whether this is a building or a landscape,” Delk said. “This might be an extreme example of improvisation, but we love that the places we design can encourage people to do the unexpected.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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