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For design that’s both social and beautiful

Snohetta's projects in progress include the King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture, in Saudi Arabia. BODY OF WORK Photograph: Courtesy of Squared Design Lab/Snohetta (King Abdulaziz Center)

The Oslo- and New York-based architectural firm Snøhetta is named after one of Norway’s tallest mountains, which rises not far from the reputed location of Valhalla, the legendary banquet hall of the gods. Towering, otherworldly, intertwined with nature yet above it: It’s an apt metaphor for an organization committed to blurring the lines between architecture and landscape.

The genius of Snøhetta buildings is in their “architecture of engagement”; in other words, these designs consider a structure’s social experience–how the user enters, passes through, and lives in a building–to be as important as its form. That emphasis helps explain why Snøhetta has won culturally significant, emotionally powerful commissions such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Egypt; the new 9/11 museum pavilion at New York’s ground zero; and the redesign of Times Square. It also means that the firm measures its success in often unorthodox ways. After Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House opened in 2008, cofounder Craig Dykers was delighted to read that one of the first headlines was about a couple having sex on the roof.

Snøhetta’s portfolio may qualify it for starchitect status, but that word makes the founders uncomfortable. Especially for a firm with humble Norwegian roots–its first office was upstairs from a beer hall–standing out like that feels wrong. In fact, that’s the last thing Dykers wants Snøhetta’s buildings to do. “I hope that the fascination with a building’s sculptural form will make way,” he says, “for a greater emphasis on its socially conscious engagement with its surroundings.”