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Where Snøhetta's Founder Finds Breathing Space in Norway

Where Snøhetta’s Founder Finds Breathing Space in Norway

The Norwegian architecture studio leads the industry with its super cool, sustainably minded projects. We talk to cofounder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen about finding inspiration in isolation.

Where have you just returned from?

“Paris, Milan, and London. Every day is hectic, with a lot of traveling squeezed in, so I try to be on the road as infrequently as possible during the holidays.

But if our family did decide to go somewhere different, it would be Oaxaca, Mexico, with our two sons. It’s one place that we visit repeatedly.

It’s also where my wife, who is an artist, studied for some time while on scholarship.”

Where in the world do you feel happiest?

“My family has a long tradition of escaping to a cabin on the west coast of Norway, on a small fjord called Ålfjorden.

We built our summer house there—it’s disconnected from the roads, from everything. It’s a place where we bring the family together.

My brother also has a cabin not far away, so we go out trawling for crabs or deep-sea fishing, and ice fishing if the fjord is frozen.”

When you’re building a place for yourself, what’s most important to you?

“Keeping it as cheap and straightforward as possible.

With this one it was about establishing it as an ‘off-grid’ cabin, so it deals with all the waste and water on-site. I want to get to a point where it’s completely self-sufficient.

We still need to use energy there, but the electricity consumption is very low anyway. It’s a simple wooden cabin, but it has a beautiful view and an intimate relationship with nature.

It’s an escape.”

Name a place that lived up to the hype.

“Lalibela, a town in northern Ethiopia, where 12th- and 13th-century churches are carved into the mountains; it really presents this monolithic aspect of architecture. I’ve been there several times, and it’s a stunning, stunning site.

It’s an amazing experience to go under the skin of the ground and the mountain. The ritual of early Coptic chanting still happens there, and pilgrims visit, so it’s a very spiritual experience, deeply engaging, and at the same time challenging because it takes you back 600 or 700 years.

It’s not very different from what it used to be, so instead of going to a static historical site somewhere else, visit Lalibela and you’ll find yourself in the middle of history in real time.”

How about a place that didn’t?

“I don’t hate any place on earth.

Even if it’s an overcrowded beach or a massively touristed city, it’s only a result of this curiosity that we carry within us. At the same time we know that we cannot keep traveling as we are, and that’s why I’m trying to inspire people to look at their own surroundings.

There’s a notion that the farther you travel the more exciting it is, but that’s not the case: The world is full of extraordinary places, and a lot of them might be just around the corner. There’s always something exciting to discover, wherever you are.

What’s your favorite city, and why?

“Paris has started to grow on me enormously, because of the city’s relationship to culture. I find that in the Anglo-Saxon world, including Norway, we’re usually weekend-oriented when it comes to taking in culture; but in Paris it’s an everyday business.

It’s in the people I meet, the conversations I have with them, and their attitude toward it. And although I don’t speak French, they don’t seem to mind when you’re bragging about their city.

Describe your favorite view.

“It would be a landscape view, not an urban one.

Somewhere remote where I can really draw into myself and think about things I can’t focus on anywhere else because I don’t have the time or the headspace. At the moment it’s probably the view out the window of my cabin, onto the fjord.

The layering of landscapes, slowly turning more and more blue until you get to the huge sky—it’s how these things all blend together that gives me a little bit of a rest. We’re so deeply embedded in what we do and what we design, so to pull back and let it sink in—I know it sounds a little privileged, but in a way I feel I strongly need it, and the older I get, the more I need it, because life can be so intense.

For me, to sit and look out at these changing weather conditions at different times of the year—in winter, spring, summer, and autumn—and see how the landscapes evolve over the course of each season, it’s one of the best things.”

In terms of sustainability, have you changed the way you travel?

“We’ve had projects around the world for a long time, but by establishing local offices in New York and San Francisco, as well as in Adelaide, Innsbruck, Paris, and Hong Kong, we as a company are traveling less than we did before.

That has not, unfortunately, led to less travel for me.”

Tell us about a special place in Norway.

“I grew up on Karmøy, an island on the country’s western coast, so my cultural experiences are very often related to nature. Here you’ll find the beaches of Åkrasanden and Sandvesanden; they’re pretty cold, but they’re absolutely beautiful.

As a child I’d go down with my family, swimming in the icy water on a beautiful summer’s day; it’s also where I staged my teenage rebellions, turning over police cars and so on. Today my son goes surfing at Sandvesanden during the winter—it’s a good place for young people to hang out—but mainly people visit in spring and autumn, because winter is fairly harsh.

How do you think architecture will change travel in the future?

“This is a very difficult question. I know a lot of people say that you have to increase the prices, that you shouldn’t allow anyone to come to these places.

But that’s probably not tenable. As the population of earth increases massively, and the middle-class population rises along with it, more and more people will want to travel—so how do we deal with that? I actually don’t have an answer.

But architecture has the possibility of at least controlling certain elements.”

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