The Accidental Architect: Craig Dykers

Linda Lee


Craig Dykers, founder of the international architectural firm Snøhetta, thinks deeply about the relationships between man, art and the environment. He believes that architects sometimes contribute to the feeling that the world is closing in, full of threats.

“It’s like making a cage in a zoo,” he says. “If you make it constrained, the animals are uncomfortable. We need to make places where people feel civil.”

For Dykers, civility includes being sensitive to the environment, using materials in surprising ways and designing with the human spirit in mind. Snøhetta, whose practice also includes interior design, landscape design and graphic design, is best known for its public buildings, which range from a “keyless” reindeer-viewing pavilion at the base of Snøhetta, the Norwegian mountain for which the company is named, to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Pae White's design for the curtain that hangs in the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet
Had he not stumbled into architecture, Dykers might have expressed his creativity in a different field. “I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a child,” he says. “Architecture is like clothing—just less mobile. They both protect us from the climate and look good. And sometimes they just look good and don’t protect us from the climate.”
When he entered college, Dykers expected to become a doctor. But in pre-med, he says, “My teachers told me that while I was an OK student, my notes and sketches were the best they’d ever seen. So, I started taking illustration classes. It was kind of a fluke.”

Art-world aspirations were quickly quashed by Dykers’ father, who was less than enthusiastic about his son’s plans:  “He said, ‘If you were going to be a great artist, you never would have called your father. You like science and you like art, why don’t you try architecture?’ To which I replied, ‘What is that?’” But soon enough, after innumerable charrettes, Dykers completed his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Texas.

Dykers’ first major undertaking, the Library of Alexandria, was a Snøhetta project before it was a fully formed company. At first, it was an ad hoc group of like-minded people, which included Kjetil Thorsen, Dykers’ Norwegian partner. The architects, designers and artists involved were all 30 or under—babies in terms of an international competition—and were stunned when they won. The library brought Snøhetta, which was formed in Oslo in 1989, to international attention.

Ryerson University Student Learning Centre in Toronto, slated to open in the spring.
Ten years later, Snøhetta won its second national competition for the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet in Oslo. “It was a relief that we weren’t going to be known for only one building,” Dykers says. Fast-forward to today, and projects include the in-progress expansion of SFMOMA, the recently opened National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion at Ground Zero and the ongoing redesign of the pedestrian spaces in Times Square, among others. The firm has also taken on smaller jobs, too, including private residences, beehives for a restaurant in Norway and even a dollhouse.

Snøhetta, which now has offices in San Francisco, New York and Innsbruck, has always worked with artists. For the Library of Alexandria, Snøhetta tapped Norwegian artists Jorunn Sannes and Kristian Blystad to create large granite blocks carved with artistic renderings of letters in languages from around the world. (Dykers himself knows Chinese, German, Norwegian, Spanish and some Arabic, and he learned a little Italian while he was in residence at the American Academy in Rome last fall.)
For the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson designed glowing walls for the lobby (he also collaborated with Snøhetta in 2007 on the Serpentine Pavilion in London); Norwegian artists Astrid Løvaas and Kirsten Wagle designed the perforated-metal panels for its façade; and Californian Pae White designed the curtain for the main theater.

An exterior view of the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet
Dykers has had a long working relationship Cuban-American painter and sculptor José Parlá, whom he met at a PechaKucha event in New York in 2007 when they were both speakers. Dykers invited Parlá to come to Snøhetta’s office, and the collaboration began. Parlá did a huge mural, in situ, for Snøhetta’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is also working on a design for the façade of the firm’s public library project in Far Rockaway, Queens, slated for completion in 2018. Somewhere in between, Parlá worked up the courage to ask Dykers if he might design his new studio in Gowanus.
He needn’t have been shy about asking. As soon as he mentioned the project, Dykers began throwing out ideas: a large work area called the Arena; a spot on a mezzanine called the Nest where Parlá could rest and think; and walls that would move to make space for receptions, exhibits or dinners. “He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve met,” Parlá says. “He designs with the inner emotion of humanity for the basic functional needs, but also for how your soul will flow through a place.”
Parlá also completed a painting that will hang in the home Dykers shares in Dumbo with his wife, architect Elaine Molinar. “You can tell architects live there, of course,” Parlá says. “But it is full of little things, details of their lives and trips. Drawings are leaning against the wall. A tiny drawing has a massive frame. It’s their style.” A little messy, very personal, full of the sensuality of lives truly lived—unlike the usual world of architects who, Dykers says, “like to square the corners.”
From fashion design to medicine to drawing to art, Dykers says, “Everything has to do with the human body—with what it means to be human.”